The fatal helicopter crash that killed three people during filming for a reality TV show on Feb. 10 occurred when the helicopter made a sudden, unexpected pitch-down movement and collided with terrain, according to a preliminary report issued by the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The accident involved a Bell 206B JetRanger operated by Orbic Air LLC under the control of well-known pilot David Gibbs. Gibbs, cameraman Darren Rydstrom, and cast member Michael Donatelli were killed in the crash, which took place on a movie ranch near Acton, Calif. The JetRanger was being operated in support of a military-themed reality show for the Discovery Channel.
According to the preliminary report, the accident occurred at around 3:30 a.m. local time, around one minute after the JetRanger took off for the purpose of shooting an aerial video sequence. The plan was for Donatelli to drop a backpack onto a plateau while the helicopter was in a hover, enabling cameras to film the airborne actor, the backpack receiver on the ground, and the helicopter executing the mission.
The film crew on the ground expected the JetRanger to perform high passes prior to maneuvering near the plateau for the shot. Instead, witnesses observed the helicopter depart normally and fly toward the plateau from the west. While maneuvering about 60 miles per hour, the helicopter suddenly pitched down and impacted a soft sloping dirt area at the base of a valley wall.
Gibbs had conducted a similar shot uneventfully earlier in the night, after which he had had a catered meal break and slept for at least an hour-and-a-half. He had discussed filming and lighting conditions with the director and other production crewmembers prior to the second backpack-dropping sequence, and had made requests for an additional light and glow sticks on the ground, both of which were granted. The preliminary report states that dark night visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident.
After the accident, the helicopter was recovered for further examination and the visual/audio recording devices were retained and sent to NTSB headquarters. The complete preliminary report can be found on the NTSB website.