Fatal Calif. PD Chopper Crash Early Report Details Flight Issues

March 10, 2022
A Huntington Beach police helicopter "yawed aggressively to the right" before beginning a spinning descent and crashing into the water in Newport Harbor, killing Officer Nicholas Vella.

A preliminary report Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed details of mechanical issues reported by the officers on the night a Huntington Beach Police Department helicopter crashed into the water in Newport Harbor, killing one officer and injuring the other.

Around 6 p.m. on Feb. 19, the helicopter flew a routine patrol along the coast of Huntington Beach, inland to Costa Mesa, and then south to Newport Beach, said the report. Huntington Beach police helicopters cover nearby jurisdictions under contracts with the cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa.

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As they were leaving the Newport Beach area, the pilot, a Huntington Beach officer who has not been publicly identified and survived; and Officer Nicholas Vella, the tactical flight officer who died, received a police radio transmission of a fight taking place in Newport Beach and redirected the helicopter to the area of the fight to relay observations from about 500 feet above of what they saw to ground officers.

By the time ground patrol officers arrived and were getting out of their cars to approach the group, the majority of the people had dispersed, but there was a concern one person was about to start an altercation with a patrol officer.

The pilot slowed the helicopter to keep a camera aimed at the scene longer, when the helicopter “yawed aggressively to the right,” said the report. The pilot tried to counteract the move, but “there was no response.” A yaw is defined as a movement to the side.

The pilot continued to try to correct the movements of the helicopter, but it did not respond, and began a spinning descent.

The pilot told investigators the engine was operating throughout the ordeal and his goal was to continue to fly the helicopter with the engine still running. In the event of engine failure, pilots can perform an autorotation, which allows the main rotor system to be turned by the force of relative wind power rather than the engine to land safely. But the pilot did not want to reduce power over a populated area, the report said.

A radio transmission from Vella over the police channel cited in the report said: “We’re having some mechanical issues right now”, followed by, “We’re going down, we’re going down.”

Because it was dark as the helicopter descended, the pilot had no horizon or accurate external reference, but sensed impact was imminent and attempted to slow the helicopter down.

The helicopter hit the water on its side in a downward right rotation, which shattered the canopy and glass. The pilot was able to release his seat harness and push himself through the door opening when onlookers arrived to pull him toward a boat.

The crash happened in clear weather conditions, with visibility of 10 miles and light winds of just 3 knots, the report said.

The report was issued a day after Vella was honored during a procession that started in Huntington Beach followed by his memorial service at Honda Center in Anaheim.

“The Huntington Beach Police Department is appreciative of NTSB’s ongoing efforts investigating the crash of our Huntington Beach Police helicopter. We will continue to work with NTSB on their investigation going forward. We await NTSB’s final, comprehensive report,” police spokesperson Jennifer Carey said Wednesday night.

The NTSB has said it may take a year or more to fully investigate the crash and determine its cause.

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