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Bell Helicopter Crash in Acton, California

On February 10, 2013, at about 3:30am a Bell Helicopter 206B JetRanger, crashed in Acton, California while conducting aerial filming for a military themed television show for the Discovery Channel. The two passengers; cameraman Darren Rydstrom, 45, of Whittier, California and cast member Michael Donatelli, 45, of Indiana, Pennsylvania, as well as the pilot David Gibbs, 59, of Valencia, California were all killed as a result of the impact.

I've been following this crash closely because I am currently handling two similar crashes involving aerial filming from helicopters. One which occurred in the Pittsburgh area during the filming of Campus PD and another which occurred in Australia during the filming of James Cameron's Deep Sea Challenge.

Common contributing causes that seem to be present in these types of crashes, in my opinion, are time and money pressures. The time pressure is from the actual or perceived need to have to "get this shoot done now"; or the financial pressure which is imposed from the production end that "we need to come in on budget" and quite often the budget just isn't enough to safely conduct the type of flying which needs to be done.

Aerial low-level filming is some of the most challenging flying that can be done. It requires maneuvering close to the ground and other obstacles at varied airspeeds; it often is done at night to catch specific nocturnal scenes making it even more challenging; and it requires appropriate equipment in the form of the right helicopter and specialized training and experience on the part of the pilot

In the Acton, California crash, there were several specific factors which caught my attention in the NTSB's Preliminary Report:

First, the fact that the shoot took place at 3:30 in the morning is a red flag... flying at that time without having a proper rest cycle has the real potential to make already challenging flying even more risky. That the pilot purportedly took a 1-2 hour "nap" is not an adequate substitute for truly proper rest before conducting such demanding flying. There is no explanation in the Preliminary Report as to why the filming had to take place at that time. It would seem that a nighttime "effect" could've been obtained earlier that evening or earlier on the next evening. As stated above, perhaps timing and/or budgetary issues were at play to get filming done that night...

Second, while there apparently was some preflight planning conducted for this challenging flying, I was troubled by the nature of the planning that was conducted; specifically, that the pilot simply walked to the area where the filming would take place, just before the filming shoot was to begin, and based on his view from the ground, requested that glow sticks be placed in on the ground in the area leading up to the shooting area... This ad hoc attempt to address a very serious safety issue in this type of flying, that is: maintaining situational awareness at night when it is dark and you are flying close to the ground; is simply inadequate. The view from the ground compared to the view even a short distance above the ground can be very different at night; and what seems to be properly orienting on the ground, could be ineffective or, even worse, disorienting from the air under conditions of dark night. Specifically, the lack of a readily discernible horizon to inform the pilot whether he was flying straight and level, or turning of descending is of critical importance, and simply setting up some glow sticks and another light may not be sufficient... Particularly telling on this point is that the production crew on the ground expected the helicopter to make several higher altitude passes before attempting the lower altitude filming pass, but apparently the pilot went right into the low pass...

Third, I was perhaps most troubled by the apparent use of a Go Pro camera in the helicopter together with a Flexit LED light pad. One of the most critical aspects of this flight was the dark night and the close proximity to terrain. The single most important thing for a pilot under those circumstances is his night vision. Without that, the rest is almost irrelevant. The worst possible thing you can do to impact night vision is to have a light, let alone a bright LED light, in the cockpit. Since the production company apparently wanted a left side shot of the helicopter, the actor would've been on the left side of the helicopter; given the apparent sideways approach of the helicopter to the filming site, we would expect the pilot to be looking out the left side of the helicopter, exactly where the LED light would be shining... The impact on the pilot's night vision, and as a result the impact on spatial disorientation must be looked at closely. The use of Go Pro and a Flexit LED light pad seem low budget for such a shot. The fact that they felt the need to get such a shot of the actor at this time of night and at such a low altitude rather than at an earlier time during the night when the pilot was still rested and at a safer altitude may suggest shooting timing and/or budgetary constraints.

Beyond the very important safety concerns in such filming, there are also unique legal issues that can arise as a result of crashes during such operations. For instance, it appears that the helicopter's operator, Orbic Air LLC and the pilot's company, Crossbow Helicopters Inc., are unrelated entities which could result in litigation dynamics that may impact the ability of the families' claims. Neither is it clear from the Preliminary Report what the employment relationship, if any, was between the passengers on board and the production company, Eyeworks USA LLC, (doing business as Bongo LLC) or other potentially responsible parties. The scope of the employment relationship could also impact the families' claims. From handling many similar type crashes, including the two aerial filming crashes I'm working on right now, I know the legal issues can be just as challenging, if not more, than the investigative issues.

This is an area of aviation that has, unfortunately, slipped under the "radar screen" and remains relatively unmonitored considering the challenges posed. Even in this crash, we see that the FAA issued a waiver for the aerial filming activity. It will be critical to see what was represented in order to get that waiver. Regardless, this is an area of aviation safety that demands closer scrutiny, whether through FAA review or civil justice litigation. That is certainly what the families I represent want to see happen...

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