Moments after Newport Beach and Costa Mesa police helicopters collided over Irvine earlier this month, killing two officers and one civilian, police aboard another helicopter in the vicinity sensed the extent of the tragedy, a tape released Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration indicates.
Apparently even before authorities reached the scene of the March 10 crash near UC Irvine, police aboard Huntington Beach's helicopter indicated that they believed that there were fatalities and that the auto theft suspect who was leading the copters in a high-speed chase was responsible for their deaths, the tape reveals.
"OK, it looks like they've collided," a Huntington Beach police helicopter is heard speaking to the FAA's air traffic control tower at John Wayne Airport, as well as to Anaheim's police helicopter, which was joining the chase. "We want to take the pursuit and get these guys for homicide."
Two officers and one civilian aboard the Costa Mesa craft died when their copter burst into flames and crashed. Two officers aboard the Newport Beach helicopter crash-landed their craft a short distance away.
Car theft suspect Vincent William Acosta, 19, was arrested later that night. He has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder. Authorities said murder charges are justified when someone is killed in the commission of another crime, in this case, auto theft.
The helicopters were participating in the high-speed chase of an allegedly stolen car, which had begun in Santa Ana shortly before 10 p.m. After a countywide police broadcast was put out, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa helicopters joined the pursuit.
The collision occurred about 10:20 p.m. as the Costa Mesa copter handed off the pursuit to the Newport Beach craft.
The FAA tape gives no indication that pilots aboard the two helicopters foresaw the collision. The tape is of conversations chiefly between the air traffic control tower and each copter--as well as of conversations between the tower and airplanes around the airport--with only a couple of direct contacts between the helicopters.
However, there is one puzzling transmission from the Costa Mesa copter, called Eagle, to Newport Beach's craft, called Ocean, shortly before all contact was lost with the two aircraft.
"Eagle to Ocean, go be down below us," a voice says on the tape.
Authorities have said the Costa Mesa helicopter came up from behind the Newport Beach copter and hit it from below.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Irvine Police Department, who are probing the crash, could not be reached Tuesday afternoon for comment on the tape.
The only contact with the helicopters immediately after that message was the tower advising both copters of airplane traffic in their area. The Costa Mesa copter is heard to respond, "Roger."
About a minute later, the Huntington Beach copter, known as HB 1, contacted the airport control tower.
"We've got an emergency. We may have had helicopters collide south of your location," the police craft told the tower. A few seconds later, it continued:
" . . . It looks like it went into the hillside above UCI. We saw it from a distance away. We're going to have to go over and find it. We had two police helicopters involved in a pursuit, and it appears they collided, and we saw flames on the ground."
About a minute after the Huntington Beach copter first alerted the tower, an air traffic controller tried to contact the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa choppers.
"HB 1, continue. Newport or Eagle, Orange? Newport or Eagle, Orange?" the tower is heard. There was no response.
Another tape of the helicopters, conversing on three police-frequency communications channels, was released earlier this month and gave no indication that either pilot saw the other before the crash.
On the FAA tape, most of the tower's contact with the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa helicopters before the crash was to advise them of airplane traffic as the two choppers entered the airport area.
"We got a pursuit going on over here, and I'm not exactly sure where we're gonna go, so if there's any problem, let me know," the Costa Mesa copter told the tower. "We're trying to follow this car down here on MacArthur."
The tower told both copters to continue and warned them of planes in the area. " . . . I'll keep you advised of departures going momentarily here on the right," the tower said.
After the copters' collision was reported by the Huntington Beach copter, the tower was contacted by Anaheim Police Department's helicopter, which is known as Angel. The Anaheim copter asked the tower if it had been in contact with Huntington Beach and then asked to speak to HB 1 directly.
HB 1: "Yeah, you there, Angel?"
Angel: "Yeah, affirm."
HB 1: "OK, it looks like they've collided. We want to take the pursuit and get these guys for homicide."
Angel: "OK, where at? We're coming down to help you."
HB 1: "If you can check the crash scene, they're just east of MacArthur, just by UCI. You'll see the flames."
Angel: "OK, en route."
HB 1: "Orange County Tower, HB 1. We're over Fashion Island. Anaheim is going to come in and take it. We've got a pursuit we're going to work. We'll be low level."
Killed in the helicopter crash were Costa Mesa Police Officers James D. Ketchum, 39, and John W. Libolt, 39. Jeffrey A. Pollard, 27, of Tustin, a civilian pilot on his first helicopter ride, also died.
The Newport Beach police officers who safely crash-landed were pilot Robert Oakley, 35, and Myles Elsing, 40.