Ara Zobayan of Huntington Beach, California, was piloting the aircraft, PEOPLE confirms.
“He was as skilled and as talented as a pilot as you could get. With him, it was always safety first and above and beyond that, he was doing what he loved,” says Adam Alexander, who called Zobayan a former instructor.
A source tells PEOPLE that Zobayan was “extremely experienced” as a pilot.
“He had a lot of respect for flying and would never take risks. He knew the valley very well. The area where they crashed was not a new area for him. He was very familiar with that area,” the source says. “It’s just such a shock. There are no words to express how much Ara will be missed and how sad everyone is about the passengers that died. It’s just such a painful tragedy. So many families affected and so much pain.”
In addition to being a flight instructor, Zobayan had 20 years of experience flying in Southern California, according to The New York Times.
Zobayan worked for Group 3 Aviation, who said in a statement, “We are heartbroken at the loss of our friend and pilot Ara Zobayan, and we are not ready to discuss his life in an interview. Ara first came to Group 3 in 1998 to learn to fly helicopters — after he had taken a sightseeing tour flight at the Grand Canyon and knew immediately he wanted to become a pilot. Ara worked hard in other businesses to save enough money to pay for training. Flying was his life’s passion.”
KTLA reporter Christina Pascucci wrote on Twitter that friends confirmed the news, and that Zobayan “taught aspiring heli pilots to fly and was very much loved in the aviation community.” Pascucci also added that Ara was instrument-rated and certified to fly in foggy conditions.
The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed the aircraft involved in the fatal crash, which is still under investigation, was a Sikorsky S-76.
A former pilot for Bryant, Kurt Deetz, told the Los Angeles Times that his “heart sank” upon hearing the news.
“In this business, when you hear about a crash like this, it’s a very surreal experience,” said Deetz, who called local weather conditions on Sunday morning “not good at all.”
Multiple local residents told PEOPLE that the fog bank, which finally started lifting at 11:30 a.m. local time, was thicker than they could ever remember seeing, with absolutely no visibility farther than 100 feet.
Scott Daehlin, who was first to contact the authorities about the crash, described witnessing the incident to PEOPLE, saying that it seemed as if the pilot was “trying to spot a landing.”
“All of a sudden I hear impact, crash, breaking fiberglass, plexiglass,” Daehlin said, adding that the helicopter rotors “immediately stopped” spinning. “It was over in a quarter second. Just went quiet.”
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE’s free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories
Girls basketball coach Christina Mauser, of Harbor Day School in Orange County, was also one of the nine aboard the private helicopter.
Her husband Matt Mauser confirmed the news on Facebook, writing: “My kids and I are devastated. We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash. Please respect our privacy. Thank you for all the well wishes they mean so much.”
John Altobelli, the head baseball coach at Orange Coast College, was also on board the aircraft — alongside his wife Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa Altobelli, the school confirmed in a statement on their website.
Alyssa was a teammate of Gianna’s. John, 56, and Keri are also parents to daughter Alexis Altobelli and son J.J. Altobelli, who works as a scout for the Red Sox.