NTSB issues preliminary report on fatal Acton helicopter crash

Although the circumstances of the crash on Feb. 10 are unclear, the incident could trigger more scrutiny of the reality TV sector.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The aerial crash that killed three people working on a Discovery Channel reality TV production occurred when the helicopter collided into the base of a valley wall in Acton while preparing to shoot a scene for a military-themed show, federal aviation investigators said in a preliminary report issued Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the Feb. 10 accident, but a preliminary report by the board provides new details on the circumstances surrounding the most serious film set accident in three decades in California.

According to the initial investigation, the accident happened about 3:30 a.m., shortly after the helicopter had taken off from a landing area at the Polsa Rosa Ranch in northern L.A. county. The helicopter was traveling along a valley toward a plateau, where the plan was to film an actor dropping a backpack to the ground.


Before the helicopter reached the ridge of the plateau, however, it hit a sloping dirt area at the base of a valley wall, resulting in a crash that killed the pilot, David Gibbs, 59, of Valencia; cameraman Darren Rydstrom, 45, of Whittier; and cast member Michael Donatelli, 45, of Indiana, Pa. The debris was scattered about 170 feet.

“Witnesses observed the helicopter depart normally and fly toward plateau from east to west,” the report said. “While maneuvering about 60 miles per hour, the helicopter suddenly pitched down and collided with the terrain below the valley’s wall. The production crew had expected the helicopter to perform high passes prior to maneuvering around near the plateau for the action shot and did not have the cameras on the ground set up for filming.”

The pilot had flown the helicopter for a similar aerial scene a few hours earlier and had slept 1 1/2 to 2 hours before taking off for the second bag-drop stunt.

The report does show that Gibbs and several members of the production crew had planned the shoot beforehand, scouting the location a few weeks prior and discussing the helicopter’s maneuvering capabilities and equipment needed.

Gibbs had obtained the necessary waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration for his company, Crossbow Helicopters Inc., to perform the flight.

The report also shows that Gibbs had discussed the aerial maneuvers with the director and had arranged to have cranes equipped with lights as well as glow sticks on the ground to illuminate the terrain. The camera crew also set up a light behind a camera inside the helicopter to film the cast member.


A recent report in The Times showed that Gibbs had his pilot privileges suspended twice in the last decade, Federal Aviation Administration records show.

The FAA suspended Gibbs’ license for 30 days in December 2003 for operating a helicopter in a “careless and reckless manner.” The enforcement action stemmed from a November 2002 incident in which Gibbs piloted a helicopter that flew into a power line as it was filming a motor home traveling on Route 66 in Kingman, Ariz., for an episode of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!,” according to an NTSB report.


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