When Celebrity/Influencer Culture Becomes a Death Trap

If there’s anything social media has taught us — it’s how the unyielding quest for internet stardom can inspire the most sinister aspects of human nature, for those who will literally sell their souls for an abundance of “likes,” and the risk takers, who are willing to die for the honor of eye-popping scrapbooks that serve as evidence of an unforgivable era.

There are no limitations for thrill seekers who are never satisfied with raised bars that can always be higher, each time.

Not too long ago, we used to be periodically deluged with disturbing headlines both on the evening news and trending sections of social platforms about the tragic deaths of influencers positioned all over the globe, who took their love of adventure to the far limits that ultimately ended with their last selfies on earth.

It’s fair to assume that this phenomenon will be thoroughly investigated by historians in the decades to come, who will hopefully be armed and ready to approach the subject of how social media became the undoing of humanity with the damning assistance of humans.

Until then, we have the insider track into what’s currently unfolding, thanks to unfiltered access into the extensively filtered universe of influencers, via documentaries like Fake Famous that scathingly showcases the lengths that people will go to painstakingly create the beautiful illusion of what guarantees profitable engagement — complete with investments in legions of bots.

But we also have to consider the other side of the coin that depicts the extreme dangers of celebrity worship, that has been known to lead to unfathomable outcomes for vulnerable and unsuspecting victims, who are guilty for being too good to be true.

The horrific murder of My Sister Sam star Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989 that occurred in the doorway of her Hollywood apartment complex, when a deranged stalker shot the 22-year-old at point blank range was the shocking breaking news that I remember well.

Almost a decade earlier in 1980, Beatles legend John Lennon was shot and killed after returning from a recording studio, as he attempted to enter his NYC apartment building with wife Yoko Ono by his side. Mark Chapman, who is presently serving a life sentence had harbored a long period of infatuation with his victim — and allegedly plotted to murder Lennon three months prior to the execution.

And in 2016, YouTube singer and former contestant of NBC’s The Voice, Christine Grimmie was senselessly gunned down while signing autographs after a concert in Orlando, FL, by a murderous stalker who drove down from St. Petersburg to commit the gruesome act of violence, and ended up turning the gun himself after being tackled by Grimmie’s brother.

There are more testimonies of how celebrities take on a persona that potently triggers the sensors of unhinged strangers, who lash out in terrifying ways that have dire consequences for both the victims and perpetrators.

You can draw outside of those terrifying scenarios and consider the seemingly non-threatening relationship between a global icon, also recognized as the “King of LA” and a dutiful helicopter pilot, who had become much more than that to the notable family he gratifyingly served.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a whole year since the world shrieked to a stop after the confirmation of Kobe Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter crash in the hills of Calabasas. Also killed were his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, two of her team mates, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, and their accompanying parents, Keri and John Altobelli, Sarah Chester, and assistant coach for the girls basketball team, Christina Mauser.

Pilot Ara Zobayan didn’t survive the deadly incident, and the chief pilot for Island Express Helicopters was recently implicated along with his employer by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) after the release of a detailed report blamed Zobayan’s recklessness and lack of judgment for a painfully preventable disaster.

Some members of the board pointed out how Zobayan was hellbent on completing the doomed flight — despite hazardous weather conditions that should’ve prompted him to responsibly divert to a nearby airport and land the chopper, until the heavy fog had lifted.

It seems the over-zealous and experienced pilot suffered from “self-induced pressure” that sets in when the task at hand can’t be altered to accommodate glaring obstacles that must be avoided in order to diminish the reality of a worst case scenario.

In the public docket of the NTSB, there are thousands of pages of documents that include interviews and images from eye witnesses on the ground who were close in proximity to the crash site on that foggy day in Los Angeles, as well as testimonies from management and staff at Island Express.

From reading the first-hand impressions of some of his co-workers and supervisors, it was clear that Zobayan was quite proud and protective of his unique standing with NBA great Kobe Bryant, who had been flown by other contenders, before eventually requesting the continued services of the chief pilot, with whom he had developed an easy rapport.

While attesting to Zobayan’s skill set and calm demeanor, interviewees were emphatic about reiterating how Bryant liked and trusted his preferred pilot, even allowing the 10-year veteran to fly his own daughters without him present.

Whitney Bagge, vice president of Island Express attested this to NTSB investigators:

“Kobe was very particular on who flew him. He’s very particular on who drove him. … Ara had been flying Kobe for years and, you know, it was more — it had turned into like a friendship at that where he would call him Mr. Pilot Man.”

So how could someone that dedicated with a track record of successfully completed flights under his belt, make the fatal mistake that resulted in the untimely demise of the precious lives under his care?

It appears that Zobayan broke flight rules and discarded his pilot training by negligently flying through sheets of thick clouds that blinded his vision, and caused what experts describe as spatial disorientation, a dangerous condition that renders the pilot incapacitated, which leads to loss of control of the aircraft.

NTSB officials concluded that Zobayan didn’t properly assess the deteriorating weather patterns, and didn’t even file a back up flight plan before taking off, which could’ve been implemented, when faced with an unfolding situation that not only surpasses what had been anticipated, but demands immediate rectification for lifesaving purposes.

Human performance investigator, Dr. Dujuan Sevillian stated it plainly:

It was widely speculated that Kobe Bryant may have unleashed his “Mamba Mentality” on his unwaveringly obedient pilot by insisting he complete the flight by any means necessary, but the NTSB unequivocally demolished that theory, and in any case, it’s hard to imagine a father willing to endanger the lives of his young daughter and two of her friends.

Yes, the group had flown the same route the day before, and were undoubtedly looking forward to playing their basketball tournament that Sunday, but definitely not at the high cost of their very lives.

Based on the pertinent information deduced by the NTSB, we are left to wonder if the intimidating celebrity of Kobe Bryant could’ve played a damning role in his pilot’s inability to safely conduct the flight without the “self-induced pressure” of getting to the destination — come what may — because he “did not want to disappoint” his high-profile client.

It sounds wild to think that Zoboyan didn’t even consider the dangers to his own life as he punched though heavy fog, without the security of up-to-date IFR training that would allow him to fly by instruments only to compensate for his lack of outside visuals.

Is it possible that Bryant’s larger-than-life persona that was built from his epic achievements both an and off the basketball court, resulting in endearing fandom, inadvertently influenced his pilot’s persistent determination to fulfill his obligations to the person he admired and desperately wanted to please — beyond the reasonable call of duty?

We will never really know what the pilot was thinking at that exact moment he chose to break the rules. He didn’t set out to kill himself and the eight other passengers onboard, but the argument can be made that his deadly decision to ignore warning signs may have been associated with his unwillingness to admit defeat, when it came to his battle with the formidable force of Mother Nature.

Either way, it’s a sad reminder of how celebrity culture can become a death trap for those who didn’t sign up for that outcome, but through circumstances beyond their control — they’re subjected to threatening items that can unknowingly be activated without consent.

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