Huntington Beach police replace aging air support fleet with new helicopters

A man in uniform gestures at a parked helicopter while children listen.
Three new MD-530F helicopters are on order for the Huntington Beach Police Department at a cost of $7.3 million. Above, police helicopter pilot Tyler Hanson is the center of attention during a First Responders Fair and patriotic assembly held in 2019 at an elementary school campus.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Huntington Beach police have replaced their aging air fleet with brand-new helicopters that will begin arriving in November, less than a year after a department aircraft crashed in Newport Beach, killing one officer and seriously injuring another.

The three MD-530F helicopters cost a combined $7.3 million. They will take the place of the three older model aircraft made by the same manufacturer that the department bought about 20 years ago, Huntington Beach Police Lt. Thoby Archer said.

The new helicopters have more powerful engines than the ones currently in HBPD’s fleet. That means they can carry more people and heavier payloads, Archer said.


“The aircraft we were using before weren’t underpowered by any means,” Archer said. “But the 530s should be able to take more people aboard during a search and rescue operation, or carry a crew of four and something like a full water bucket if we wanted to use it to assist with fire suppression.”

The department’s fleet had been made up of three MD-500 helicopters, one of which was still in service as of this past week. Another was sold to a buyer in Australia earlier this year, Archer said.

The third spiraled into waters along Newport Beach on Feb. 19.

Submerged helicopter off the beach where a vehicle is parked at night with its lights on the water.
An officer died when a Huntington Beach Police helicopter crashed in Newport Beach on Feb. 20.
(CBS2 / KCAL9)

Officer Nicholas Vella, one of two crew members in the helicopter, died in the crash. The other suffered traumatic injuries, but has since returned to duty, Archer said.

“Nicholas was a friend to all of us,” Archer said. “It was tough on everyone, but it wasn’t like people were going to stop calling 911; everyone just had to work through it.”

The helicopter that went down had just returned from routine maintenance about a week before the crash, Archer said. The National Transportation Safety Bureau has not yet specified the exact cause of the crash.


In the weeks following Vella’s death, HBPD’s Air Support Bureau underwent a thorough review of its procedures, Archer said. However, they found no “glaring issues” in either training or policy that might have played a role in the crash, the lieutenant said.

“Flying over water is difficult,” Archer said. “Flying at night is difficult. I don’t want to speak out of turn, but it may have just been a perfect storm of factors that evening.”

Despite the crash, members of the Air Support Bureau have “full faith and confidence” in their engineers and equipment, Archer said. He added that members of the bureau are still processing the loss of Officer Vella in the midst of performing their duties.

Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella in uniform in front of a U.S. flag.
Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella.
(Courtesy of the Huntington Beach Police Department)

The crash that killed Vella was the second time in recent years an HBPD aircraft went down unexpectedly. A different department helicopter experienced a mechanical problem and was seen spinning and tilting in the air before making a hard landing at John Wayne Airport in April 2019. That incident was related to a worn-out part that has since been repaired, and no injuries were reported at the time.

The purchase of the new helicopters was approved by the City Council in June as part of the 2021-22 budget. They were supposed to have arrived by April, but their delivery has been delayed, Archer said.