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UPDATE: Preliminary report says chopper pitched forward

Crash at Acton-area movie ranch killed 3

Posted: February 25, 2013 2:55 p.m.
Updated: February 25, 2013 6:27 p.m.

A helicopter that crashed during a reality TV production this month suddenly pitched down and hit the ground about a minute after taking off in early morning darkness, a preliminary report said Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board report described the Feb. 10 accident that killed all three people aboard, but it drew no conclusions about what caused the Bell 206B JetRanger to go down on a film production ranch near Acton.

The helicopter, piloted by Valencia resident David Gene Gibbs, was being used for scenes in which an actor dropped a backpack to the ground from the hovering aircraft.

The production crew on the ground was not filming at the time, but there was a camera operator aboard and a camera pointed at an actor in the left front seat, the report said. The recording devices were sent to NTSB headquarters for examination.

Killed in the crash were Gibbs, who ran a helicopter filming business in Valencia, Darren Arthur Rydstrom, 46, of Whittier, and Michael William Donatelli, 45, of Indiana, Pa.

Gibbs and “several members of the production crew” reportedly scouted the movie ranch location a few weeks before the shooting for a Discovery Channel military reality show that had not yet been named.

On Feb. 9 about 4:45 p.m., Gibbs lifted off from Van Nuys Airport and arrived in Acton at 5:30 p.m.

He held a safety meeting with the production crew members, briefing them of the potential hazards of having the helicopter on site.

The first “bag-drop mission” took place at 9 p.m. Feb. 9, when Gibbs lifted off with an actor in the left-front seat and a camera operator behind him in the left-rear seat.

Over the next hour, Gibbs performed several passes, circling numerous times around a pre-determined drop zone described as an open clearing surrounded by trees a few hundred yards away from the landing zone.

After circling and dropping the backpack several times, Gibbs flew back to the landing zone to pick up the backpack and discuss necessary changes in the flight to capture the “correct shot.”

At 11 p.m., Gibbs and the crew shared a catered meal with the crew, then slept in a trailer for about two hours.

When he woke for the second filming session, Gibbs went to the second shooting location — a plateau about 1,500 feet southeast of the landing zone — and asked producers for additional lighting, according to the preliminary NTSB report.

He asked for “another smaller light be erected to illuminate the sloping terrain” and asked for glow sticks be placed in line on the ridge. Both requests were granted, the report said.

The plan was to have Gibbs lift off from below the ridge line with the left side in view for the actor to be filmed dropping the backpack onto the plateau.

At 3:30 a.m. Feb. 10, after he removed frost from the main rotor blades and windshield, Gibbs left the landing zone with the same camera operator in the left-rear seat and a different actor in the left-front seat.

Witnesses saw the chopper lift off normally and fly to the plateau from the west.

“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 or filming,” according to the report.

The carsh site was located in the soft sloping dirt area at the base of the valley wall with a portion of the left skid tow impacting first.

The helicopter wreckage was scattered about 170 feet, said the report, which noted findings were preliminary and could change as the investigation progresses.

More than 500 family members, friends and film industry associates remembered Gibbs during a memorial service Saturday at Real Life Church.

At least four helicopter pilots, flying in formation, conducted a flyover in Gibbs’ honor.

The Associated Press contributed to this report
on Twitter @jamesarthurholt



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