Investigators still trying to determine cause of deadly police chopper crash in Newport Beach

A helicopter sits in the water after it crashed.
A Huntington Beach Police Department helicopter made a crash landing Saturday in Newport Harbor, killing one officer.

Investigators on Sunday were still trying to determine the cause of a Huntington Beach police helicopter crash in Newport Harbor that killed one officer and injured another.

The officer who died in Saturday night’s crash was identified as 44-year-old veteran Officer Nicholas Vella, according to the Huntington Beach Police Department. A second officer, who has not yet been identified, was released from the hospital Sunday morning.

Investigators have ascertained which officer was the pilot, but have not yet publicly released that information, said Jennifer Carey, the department’s spokeswoman. The wreckage was pulled from the water Sunday afternoon, she added.


The National Transportation Safety Board is the lead agency investigating the accident, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Major Accident Reconstruction Team will be conducting its own investigation, Carey said.

The pilot made a brief call to report that the helicopter was experiencing mechanical issues, before calling again to say that they were going to crash, said NTSB spokesperson Elliott Simpson during a Sunday news conference. “Right now, it appears to be a nose-down descent into the water,” Simpson said.

The cause of the crash will be determined at the end of the NTSB’s investigation, which could take 12 to 18 months, NTSB spokesperson Eric Weiss said.

“We look at not only what happened but we try to figure out why it happened,” Weiss said, explaining that the agency’s investigative process looks at human, machine and environmental factors. “By figuring out why it happened, you can maybe prevent future accidents.”

Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra described Vella as “an officer that was truly dedicated to the job and was doing what he loved doing.” Vella was a 16-year veteran of the force and had previously worked as a police officer in Laguna Beach, Parra said.

A headshot of a police officer in uniform
Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella, 44, died following a police helicopter crash in Newport Harbor Saturday.
(Huntington Beach Police Department)

One witness described the craft as clearly in distress and at least partly out of control just before landing in the water about 10 to 20 feet offshore. The helicopter, called HB1, went down in the vicinity of the Lido Peninsula, according to the flight-tracker website, in a normally sleepy neighborhood with sweeping views of Newport Harbor.


The helicopter had been summoned from Huntington Beach, Parra said, on a “disturbance fight call” from Newport Beach, which contracts for aerial assistance as needed with the neighboring city.

The call about the crash came in about 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Carey said. Newport Beach police were monitoring the radio broadcast and had help at the scene “instantaneously,” said Newport Beach Police Chief Jon T. Lewis, who also was at the news conference.

A witness described the minutes leading up to the crash.

“We were driving over here and we heard the pitch of the helicopter,” the unidentified witness told KCAL-TV Channel 9 news. “And it sounded like a helicopter was in distress. And then when we looked at the helicopter, it was out of control. And it was obvious that the helicopter was going to go down. And it did go down and almost immediately sunk.”

Video recorded at the scene shows the craft lying on its side, mostly submerged, as rescuers work frantically to free officers. One officer was able to emerge quickly and walk with assistance onto the beach. Getting to the second took longer.

Both were taken to trauma centers.

The Huntington Beach Police Department has three helicopters and typically keeps one in operation 24 hours a day. The two other aircraft will be grounded pending an inspection and the preliminary investigation, Parra said.

“This is truly a really heartbreaking time for all of us here in Huntington Beach,” Mayor Barbara Delgleize said. “Our community values our police department, and the loss of an officer hits us all really hard.”


The Huntington Beach Police Department Air Support Unit was formed in 1968. Huntington Beach was the first city in Orange County and the fifth in the nation to use helicopters for public safety service, according to the city.