Fatal helicopter crash spurs concern over reality TV safety

Although the circumstances of Sunday's crash are unclear, the incident could trigger more scrutiny of the reality TV sector.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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A helicopter crash in northern Los Angeles County that killed three people was one of the worst film set accidents in recent years and is likely to further fuel debate over whether working conditions on reality TV programs are unsafe.

Three people, including the pilot and a cast member, were killed in a helicopter crash early Sunday morning at the Polsa Rosa Ranch in a remote area near Soledad Canyon Road in Acton, authorities said.

The 730-acre ranch, which straddles the Santa Clara River and borders the Angeles National Forest, is a popular spot for filming. It was used for Disney’s upcoming film “The Lone Ranger.”


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The helicopter crash occurred during production of a reality TV show called “Untitled Military Project” for the Discovery Channel, according to a permit filed with FilmL.A. Inc., which had granted permission to film a helicopter landing and takeoff at the site between 5 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. Sunday.

The show was being produced by Eyeworks USA, formerly 3 Ball Productions, best known for its “The Biggest Loser” series. Producers had clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, said Phil Sokoloski, spokesman for FilmL.A. The nonprofit group, which handles film permits for the city and the county, did not have a monitor on the set, but the L.A. County Fire Department did assign an advisor to the site, Sokoloski said.

It’s not clear what caused the crash, which is under investigation by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board.

A spokeswoman for Eyeworks USA declined to comment on the cause of the crash, citing the pending investigations, but said no pyrotechnics were involved during filming.

“We are cooperating fully with the authorities,” Eyeworks USA said in a statement. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the families of those involved.”


Discovery Channel confirmed Eyeworks was shooting a TV show for the cable channel when the accident occurred but declined to provide other details.

This is the second fatal incident involving a Discovery Channel production in a year. Last June, a woman was killed by errant smoke bombs during filming of a pilot for a proposed Discovery Channel series set at a shooting range in Colorado.

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The helicopter crash in Acton was the worst film set accident in California since 1982, when star Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed by a helicopter that crashed into them during filming of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” The helicopter was flying low at the time and was caught in a pyrotechnics stunt. The deaths led to scrutiny of safety standards and prompted tougher rules for film crews.

A cameraman died in May 2011 after a helicopter crashed during filming of the G4 reality TV series “Campus PD” in Pennsylvania. Producers had been shooting aerial footage of police cars near the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus.

Sunday’s fatal accident was the second in less than a year at Polsa Rosa Ranch. A diver working on “The Lone Ranger” drowned there in September while prepping a tank for an underwater shooting scene.


Although the circumstances of Sunday’s crash are unclear, the incident could trigger more scrutiny of the reality TV sector. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times showed that some reality TV programs cut corners on safety, exposing cast and crew to hazardous working conditions. A combination of tight budgets, lack of trained safety personnel and pressure to capture dramatic footage has caused serious and in some cases fatal incidents, The Times reported.

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“It certainly raises a red flag,” said State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who heads the Senate’s Labor and Industrial Relations Committee. “I’ve asked my committee to investigate.”

Lieu’s office has been looking into possible safety infractions by reality TV shows.

“The problem that we’ve had is that obviously California law can’t reach out to other states or foreign countries where a lot of these shows are filmed,” Lieu said. “If we start getting instances [of accidents] in California, then we need to take steps to make reality TV safer.”

Scott Sternberg, a reality producer whose company has made such shows as “Disaster in the Gulf” and “On the Case With Paula Zahn,” said the accident this weekend reminded him of the “Twilight Zone” helicopter crash.

“It immediately made me think of Vic Morrow,” Sternberg said. “I assume the producers needed to get this [helicopter] shot. The question is, are we pushing too far?”


The Los Angeles County coroner identified the victims as David Gibbs, 59, of Valencia, helicopter pilot; Darren Rydstrom, 45, of Whittier, crew member; and Michael Donatelli, 45, of Indiana, Pa., cast member.

The incident was reported to Cal/OSHA. The agency has not yet opened an investigation, “but we’re looking into the accident and trying to figure out if we have jurisdiction,” a spokesman said.


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