Seconds before a helicopter crashed in a Newport Beach neighborhood two years ago and killed three people on board, the pilot apologized to his passengers that “something’s wrong” before saying he could probably “save it,” according to a new report.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s Dec. 10 report does not explain what the pilot may have meant, nor does it give a reason for the crash, other than “loss of control in flight.” But the report does include harrowing details about the flight’s final moments from the sole survivor of the crash.
“I remember looking straight down between my legs through the glass at the ground rushing toward us and saying, ‘God no! God no! No God! No God!’ and instinctively preparing for impact,” the surviving male passenger wrote to investigators.
The crash killed pilot Joseph Anthony “Pepe” Tena, 60, and passengers Kimberly Lynne Watzman, 45, and Brian Reichelt, 56. The lone survivor was seriously hurt, and one person on the ground suffered minor injuries.
The four occupants of the Robinson R44 Clipper I helicopter were bound for Catalina Island on a pleasure flight when the crash occurred on Jan. 30, 2018, according to the NTSB report. The aircraft clipped the roofs of two houses and hit the side of a home on Egret Court in the Bayview Terrace neighborhood about a minute after takeoff from John Wayne Airport.
Federal Aviation Administration radar data revealed that the helicopter lost 300 feet of elevation in 11 seconds, dropping from 500 feet to 200 feet above the ground, according to the NTSB report. The pilot did not make any distress calls.
The survivor told police that the pilot had told the group “something’s wrong” and apologized, the report said.
A witness who described himself as a onetime student pilot said he was driving on the southbound 73 tollway near MacArthur Boulevard when he saw a red helicopter that appeared to be falling from the sky.
“The helicopter was going down quickly diagonally,” and after it cleared the freeway, it appeared that the nose of the helicopter had been pulled up and the pilot was trying to perform an autorotation maneuver while the craft continued to descend, he wrote in an email to investigators.
Autorotation helps pilots land safely without engine power. As a helicopter is falling, air rushes up from under the main rotor and pushes the blades, turning the rotor and creating just enough lift to touch down.
“I just thought you would like to know that it did look like the pilot attempted autorotation or pulled back, showing that he/she was aware of and attempting to avoid a crash or respond to an engine problem,” the witness wrote.
A Bayview Terrace resident who was on her driveway when the copter went down said she saw it “coming in too low and then clear the power lines and hit two of my neighbors’ homes behind me.”
She called 911 and ran to the scene to give paramedics directions.
“I want to make sure this does not happen again,” she wrote.
The surviving passenger told investigators that the group had met at Tena’s Newport Beach office and rode together to the airport. During the ride, Tena, who had an ownership stake in Revolution Aviation — a flight school and touring company at the Orange County airport — spoke by phone with someone. The survivor assumed it was a contact at the aviation company. Tena seemed disappointed with his assigned aircraft, but the report doesn’t say why. He said it was “not a big deal.”
The survivor said Tena had spoken often about how he enjoyed flying, and he seemed focused and in control as they lifted off.
But after about a minute, the nose of the helicopter dropped. The survivor, in the front passenger seat, saw the ground rush toward him. The impact was hard and loud, and “everything was white for a split second” before he noticed searing pain and the taste of blood as he was hanging out of the crumpled helicopter with the unresponsive pilot atop him.
“This is when I felt I was all alone now,” he wrote.
He said he fought his way out of his seat belt, crawled away from the wreckage and collapsed. He heard running liquid — the aircraft was leaking fuel — and voices. He told people who came to his aid about the people still inside the helicopter and asked them to call his wife.
“They loaded me into the ambulance and ... I finally went dark, waking up in the ICU,” he said.
The plane was leased to Revolution from Spitzer Helicopter LLC of Canyon Lake in Riverside County, according to public records. Revolution Aviation later changed its name to One Above Aviation. It “abruptly” went out of business around March this year, according to helicopter industry magazine Vertical.
The company’s chief pilot attributed the closure to a lack of qualified flight instructors and an increase in operating costs at John Wayne Airport. He denied that the fatal crash and other mishaps had played a role, the magazine reported.
R44s were involved in 42 fatal crashes in the U.S. from 2006 to 2016, more than any other civilian helicopter, according to a Times analysis last year of National Transportation Safety Board accident reports. The same type of helicopter was involved in a fatal crash in June on Catalina Island.
Davis writes for Times Community News