A pilot who died along with his two passengers in a 1999 helicopter crash off Huntington Beach lost control of the aircraft after encountering clouds and fog that caused him to become disoriented, federal investigators have concluded.
In a report issued Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board said the helicopter ran into weather conditions that required the use of instruments to maintain course and level flight.
The pilot, however, was not instrument-rated, the NTSB noted.
He and the two passengers who died in the May 28, 1999, crash, which occurred in the ocean about six miles southwest of the Huntington Beach Pier, were all Southern California Edison employees.
The passengers were en route to a business meeting on Santa Catalina Island.
Killed were Gorden Hodges, 65, of Corona, a veteran helicopter pilot, and Edison managers Sandra Brandligt, 33, of Whittier, and David Peacor, 51, of Vista.
Hodges' body was never recovered.
"They were very much endeared and well-known employees," said Clarence Brown, a spokesman for the Rosemead-based utility.
"The tragedy is still fresh in our minds. We miss them."
The helicopter took off at 6:35 a.m. from a helipad at the Edison Service Center in Irvine and headed to Catalina, where the company has power generating stations.
About eight minutes after departure, air traffic control operators lost contact with the aircraft.
The NTSB, a federal agency that investigates transportation accidents, noted that the weather was overcast and cloudy that day with visibility ranging from one to five miles.
Other pilots told investigators that visibility was worse near the accident site.
Radar data used to analyze the flight path of the helicopter indicated that the pilot made several turns, changed altitude repeatedly, and tried to reverse direction shortly before the crash.
Investigators said in their report that no air traffic control services or weather briefings were provided to the pilot the morning of the accident.
In a written statement, the company's chief pilot said that Hodges had called four company stations trying to obtain a weather report.
Investigators also reported that they found no mechanical problems with the aircraft after examining maintenance records and the recovered wreckage.
The helicopter was a 1991 Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm bought by Edison in 1998.
The NTSB concluded that the probable cause of the accident was spatial disorientation caused by an inadvertent encounter with poor weather conditions over the channel.
Spatial disorientation can occur when pilots are faced with poor visibility either at night or during cloudy or foggy weather.
The condition can cause illusions, problems with depth perception and a loss in the sense of direction, making it difficult to distinguish which way an aircraft is headed.
Statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration show that 5% to 10% of all general aviation accidents are caused by spatial disorientation.
About 90% of the cases result in a fatal crash.
The potential danger can be overcome with instruments that tell pilots whether they are flying level.
Perhaps the most publicized case of suspected spatial disorientation involved the 1999 death of John F. Kennedy Jr., whose single-engine plane ran into haze off Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and crashed into the sea.