Newsletter: Essential California: When helicopters fall from the sky

The R44 flown by FAA pilot Larry Wells crashed into a Mississippi home in 2009.
(Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Nov. 20, and here’s what’s happening across California:


Before we turn to the most destructive wildfire in California history, let’s talk helicopters. Specifically, the Robinson R44. Manufactured in Torrance, it is the world’s bestselling civilian helicopter. It also has a long history of deadly crashes.

Robinson 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 of National Transportation Safety Board accident reports. That translates to 1.6 deadly accidents per 100,000 hours flown — a rate nearly 50% higher than any other of the dozen most common civilian models whose flight hours are tracked by the Federal Aviation Administration.


Family-owned Robinson Helicopter Co. disputed The Times’ analysis, contending that the FAA undercounts the flight hours for the R44, leading to an inflated accident rate. The company vigorously defended its record, maintaining that its aircraft are safe and reliable when flown within their operating limits.

Data Editor Ben Welsh worked on the story with Kim Christensen and explains how it came together:

“My colleague Kim Christensen is your classic investigative reporter. He’s skeptical, tenacious and when he knows he has a story, nothing holds him back from getting it — some of the qualities glamorized by the recently departed screenwriter William Goldman in the movie ‘All the President’s Men.’

“Kim is also a dedicated reader of what used to be called ‘the briefs,’ short news items buried in the back of the paper. Last year, he noticed something hidden in one of those stories: the crash of a helicopter manufactured by Robinson Helicopter Co. Kim’s perceptiveness, combined with a willingness to wander away from today’s big news in search of tomorrow’s, is essential to doing original work, and what got this story started.

“Soon enough, Kim realized he needed more than anecdotes to answer his questions about Robinson’s safety record. That’s where data can make the difference, and where he knew he needed some help. Kim welcomed me into his work, and over the coming months we read hundreds of documents, mastered the government’s accident database and gradually put together the piece. This involved developing a computer program, which we published alongside the story, that calculates helicopter accident rates.

“Not every investigation involves late-night meetings in the parking lot with ‘Deep Throat.’ In fact, few do. The best journalists, like Kim, are less like the swashbuckling swordsmen in another Goldman film, ‘The Princess Bride,’ and more like the diligent, collegial and caring cast of 2015’s Oscar winner ‘Spotlight.’ Though even Kim dresses better than those poor slobs.”

Read the story here. Los Angeles Times

Also: Learn how the FAA has taken a hands-off approach in how it handles these cases. Los Angeles Times


The latest on California’s fires

“We have to learn”: More than a week after the Camp fire began — with 79 fatalities and hundreds still missing, more than 10,000 homes destroyed and 150,000 acres consumed — experts believe there are lessons to take away from this destruction, however painful. “We have to learn from this so that no one else will have to suffer through such an inferno.” Los Angeles Times

Plus: Deadly California fires prompt bold thinking about prevention: Shelters, strict zoning, buyouts. Los Angeles Times

Aging and disaster: A portrait of how one woman in her 70s is coping in the aftermath of the Camp fire. Los Angeles Times


Haunting: Cal Fire’s photos of destroyed buildings, matched up with how the sites looked before the fire. Los Angeles Times

New dangers: Thousands of people reeling from the fires are bracing this week for a possible second blow: flooding and mudslides. Los Angeles Times

Victor Lobl loads sandbags provided by the L.A. County Fire Department on Monday with the help of friends to protect what's left of his Malibu home.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In Sacramento: Trying to get a handle on California’s deadly wildfires has lawmakers flummoxed. Los Angeles Times


Returning home: After Southern California’s Woolsey fire devastated Malibu, some residents return home. Los Angeles Times

In Butte County: Officials have arrested two men in connection with the burglary of a fire station. Los Angeles TImes

Useful: Compare the size of the Camp Fire, Woolsey Fire and Hill Fire to the place you live. NBC News

On the front line: Firefighters battle exhaustion from perpetual blazes. Wall Street Journal


A new twist: U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blamed the state’s fires on “radical environmentalists” who he said have prevented forest management. Los Angeles Times

Plus: The man driving Trump’s agenda at the Department of Interior. Washington Post

Fact check: “President Donald Trump is going too far in assigning most of the blame for California’s devastating wildfires on the state’s forest management.” Associated Press

Finland to Trump: We don’t rake the forest floor, but we do other things you should emulate. Los Angeles Times


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Wild stuff: Just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, “Little Dog,” “Weasel” and other militia members keep an eye out for migrants. Los Angeles Times

Plus: After U.S. Customs and Border Protection received information about migrant caravan members gathering in Tijuana for a possible attempt to rush illegally through the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the agency temporarily suspended some operations, officials said. Los Angeles Times


Big picture: How California conservatives became the intellectual engine of Trumpism. Vox


In D.C.: Sixteen Democrats, in a letter released Monday, publicly “committed to voting for new leadership” in the race for House speaker, putting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a difficult position as she tries to regain the post. Los Angeles Times

Plus: Pelosi’s last battle. New York Times Magazine


Resistance 2.0: Maxine Waters wants to investigate Trump, but her party may resist. Politico

By the Bay: San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott appears to be taking to heart the mayor’s call to keep large homeless camps from sprouting back up on the streets. San Francisco Chronicle


Arrested: A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy assigned to handle sex abuse crimes, often involving minors, has been arrested on suspicion of raping a 14-year-old girl in a case he was investigating. Los Angeles Times


The fight continues: Manhattan prosecutors have pushed back against a call to dismiss criminal charges against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, weeks after allegations of misconduct against a New York City police detective roiled the case. Los Angeles Times


Follow the money: Officials had $1 million for beach access at Hollister Ranch — where did it go? Los Angeles Times

Gulp: California’s air exceeded world health standards by 60 times last week, and conditions Monday continued to top safe thresholds. Bloomberg



Heartwarming: Neighbors in Seal Beach line up every morning to give the owner of Donut City some time with his ailing wife. Los Angeles Times

Fun! Road-tripping with California’s poet laureate. LAist

On the offensive: With Facebook at “war,” Mark Zuckerberg has adopted a more aggressive style. Wall Street Journal


Plus: Inside Facebook, denial, tension and finger-pointing as a sense of crisis builds. NBC News

Mind blown: There’s a hidden bar with a secret entrance at Disney California Adventure that almost nobody knows about — until now. Press-Enterprise


Los Angeles area: Sunny, 70, Tuesday. Partly cloudy, 67, Wednesday. San Diego: Sunny, 69, Tuesday. Partly cloudy, 68, Wednesday. San Francisco area: Partly cloudy, 61, Tuesday. Showers, 69, Wednesday. San Jose: Partly cloudy, 68, Tuesday. Showers, 61, Wednesday. Sacramento: Partly cloudy, 65, Tuesday. Showers, 57, Wednesday. More weather is here.



Today’s California memory from Gerald Moores:

“When I was a young man in the early 1960s, a winter road trip to coastal Southern California from my home in cool, rainy Vancouver was a magic carpet ride to sunshine and pleasure. In eager anticipation, from my elderly VW Beetle, I watched the margins of I-5 for the first of the palm trees, then the rice fields, then the abundant flowers as I progressed south.

“The friendly, helpful people I met, and the beauty of California, infused me with a welcoming sense of being in a land quite different from my own. I have returned by road many times since that first trip. Each time, as Mt. Shasta first comes into view, I feel the nourishing pleasure of cloudless days, comfort, and the sense of returning to a beloved special place on Earth.”


If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. Send us an email to let us know what you love or fondly remember about our state. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints and ideas to Benjamin Oreskes and Shelby Grad. Also follow them on Twitter @boreskes and @shelbygrad.