The National Transportation Safety Board has released a report detailing the sequence of events that led to the fatal crash of a helicopter on an Acton movie set more than two years ago.
Three men – David Gene Gibbs, 59, of Valencia; Michael William Donatelli, 45, of Indiana, Pa.; and Darren Arthur Rydstrom, 46, of Whittier – were killed when the Bell 206 JetRanger crashed at Polsa Rosa Ranch on Feb. 10, 2013, at about 3:30 a.m.
The shoot was titled “Untitled Military Project” and was for a reality television show for Bongo productions, according to the NTSB.
A final report showing probable cause should be released in the next couple of weeks. The latest report indicates the pilot experienced visibility problems just prior to the crash.
Coroner’s officials performed an autopsy of the pilot and did not determine a medical cause to be a factor in the crash, according to the NTSB report.
A post-crash exam of the helicopter wreckage showed no signs of mechanical malfunctions that would have caused the crash.
The script for the shoot “called for an actor to drop a backpack to the ground while the helicopter was in a hover, enabling the cameras to film the airborne actor, the backpack receiver on the ground, and the helicopter executing the mission,” the report states. There were two shots that were needed was the backpack being dropped which was planned to be done by two different actors at two different locations at the movie ranch.
The pilot left Van Nuys Airport Feb. 9 at 4:45 p.m. and arrived at the ranch around 5:30 p.m. where the pilot “conducted a safety meeting with the production crew members, briefing them of the potential hazards of having the helicopter on-site.”
The pilot then removed the two left doors and extra fuel containers. The first flight began around 9 p.m. with the three men in the helicopter.
Over the course of the flight, the pilot repeatedly requested the lights for the shoot be turned down, saying “Okay, I gotta lose that light for right now guys” and “I can’t see.” The lights were turned off and the pilot repeatedly said he was, “just getting acclimated,” to the lighting but he could not “see anything and especially the ground that’s underneath me.”
The grow film crews also requested the pilot hover lower to the ground but the pilot said he had “no depth perception… you can’t see anything,” the report states. The crew then took a break before taking off again to continue filming.
For the shot, “the helicopter would then ascend from below the ridgeline with its left side in view for the actor to be filmed dropping the bag onto the plateau.” There were two cranes with lights attached directed at the plateau.
The pilot requested a smaller light be placed and directed toward the ridgeline, as well as glowsticks place on the slope line to lead them to the drop zone. Both requests we granted.
The helicopter departed normally toward the plateau along the ridgeline, according to witnesses. The helicopter was flying about 60 mph when, “it pitched down and collided with the terrain below the ridgeline.”
The actor asked if he could keep on a red light instead of his headlight to be able to see but the “to which the pilot responded that would be fine adding that the LED lights “really [sigh] blinds me.”
The camera operator then instructed the actor on how to operate the key light for the cockpit area. The camera operator said that the two key lights were “pretty bright” and told the actor to ask the pilot if the lights were OK.
“During the takeoff, the actor continued the scripted dialogue for about a minute until the pilot intervened saying, ‘I need to lose this light, this key light here.’ The actor turned off the light and seconds later the camera operator said,”Where did uh, we’re going down low.”
The lights in the cockpit became brighter and then went dark, while the pilot responded “okay, okay, I can’t…”
The camera operator interrupted the pilot by saying “pull up, pull up.” The helicopter crashed into the ground about 1 minute and 17 seconds after takeoff.