‘God no! God no!’ Report on fatal 2018 copter crash describes flight’s final seconds over Newport Beach
Seconds before a helicopter crashed into a Newport Beach neighborhood two years ago and killed three of the four people aboard, the pilot apologized to his passengers before saying he could probably “save it,” according to a report this month by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The report does not explain what the pilot could have meant, nor does it give a reason for the crash, other than “loss of control in flight.” An additional report that will state a probable cause is forthcoming.
But the new report, released Dec. 10, does contain harrowing details about the flight’s final moments from the sole survivor and from eyewitnesses, including one who described what could have been an engine failure.
The four-seat Robinson R44 Clipper I copter clipped the roofs of two houses and hit the side of a home on Egret Court near Shearwater Place in the Bayview Terrace community on Jan. 30, 2018, about a minute after takeoff from John Wayne Airport. It was bound for Catalina Island on a pleasure flight. Its four occupants, who worked in the local hotel industry, were headed to lunch.
“I remember looking straight down between my legs through the glass at the ground rushing toward us and saying ‘God no! God no! No God! No God!’ and instinctively preparing for impact,” the surviving passenger wrote to investigators.
The crash killed pilot Joseph Anthony “Pepe” Tena, 60, and passengers Kimberly Lynne Watzman, 45, and Brian Reichelt, 56.
The survivor was seriously hurt, and one person on the ground suffered minor injuries.
A preliminary NTSB report was issued about two weeks after the crash.
The R44 was leased to Revolution Aviation — a flight school and touring company at JWA — from Spitzer Helicopter LLC of Canyon Lake in Riverside County, according to public records. Revolution Aviation later changed its name to One Above Aviation. It “abruptly” went out of business around March this year, according to helicopter industry magazine Vertical.
The company’s chief pilot attributed the closure to a lack of qualified flight instructors and an increase in operating costs at JWA and denied that the fatal crash and other mishaps played a role, the magazine reported.
Another helicopter operated by the company crashed at Long Beach Airport in September 2017, seriously injuring its student pilot. The Federal Aviation Administration investigated the company not long before the Long Beach crash after receiving a complaint. The company reportedly addressed the problems that inspectors brought to its attention.
Another Revolution/One Above helicopter tipped on its side at JWA in September 2018. A student pilot and a flight instructor suffered minor injuries.
The new report on the fatal crash said FAA radar data revealed that the R44 lost 300 feet of elevation in 11 seconds, dropping from 500 feet to 200 feet above the ground. The pilot did not make any distress calls.
The survivor told police that the pilot told the group “something’s wrong.” He apologized.
A witness who described himself as a one-time student pilot said he was driving on the southbound 73 Freeway near MacArthur Boulevard when he saw a red helicopter above the road.
“The helicopter was going down quickly diagonally,” and after it cleared the freeway it pulled nose up and appeared to try an autorotation maneuver while it continued to descend, he wrote in an email to investigators.
Autorotation helps pilots land safely without engine power. As a helicopter is falling, air rushes up from under the main rotor and pushes the blades, turning the rotor and creating just enough lift to touch down.
“I just thought you would like to know that it did look like the pilot attempted autorotation or pulled back, showing that he/she was aware of and attempting to avoid a crash or respond to an engine problem,” the witness wrote.
A Bayview Terrace resident who was on her driveway when the copter went down said she saw it “coming in too low and then clear the power lines and hit two of my neighbors’ homes behind me.”
She called 911 and ran to the scene to give paramedics directions.
“I want to make sure this does not happen again,” she wrote.
The surviving passenger told investigators that the group met at Tena’s Newport Beach office and rode together to the airport. During the ride, Tena, who had an ownership stake in Revolution, spoke by phone with someone who the survivor assumed was a contact at the aviation company. Tena seemed disappointed with his assigned aircraft, but the report doesn’t say why. He said it was “not a big deal.”
The survivor said Tena had spoken often about how he enjoyed flying, and he seemed focused and in control as they lifted off.
But after about a minute, the nose dropped. The survivor, in the front passenger seat, saw the ground rush toward him. The impact was hard and loud, and “everything was white for a split second” before he noticed searing pain and the taste of blood as he was hanging out of the crumpled helicopter with the unresponsive pilot atop him.
“This is when I felt I was all alone now,” he wrote.
He said he fought his way out of his seat belt, crawled away from the wreckage and collapsed. He heard running liquid — the aircraft was leaking fuel — and voices. He told people who came to his aid about the people still inside the copter and asked them to call his wife.
“They loaded me into the ambulance and ... I finally went dark, waking up in the ICU,” he said.
All the latest on Orange County from Orange County.
Get our free TimesOC newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Daily Pilot.