NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - Officials unveiled a plaque at Marina Park Sunday to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella, who was killed in a helicopter crash while patrolling over Newport Beach.
"One year has passed, and there is still no words that can adequately express this loss," Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra said. "We will always remember Nick on this day. He was a selfless and driven police officer who we were blessed to have known."
Vella was in the Huntington Beach police helicopter HB-1 responding to a call on Feb. 19, 2022, when the helicopter crashed into the water off Newport Beach. The initial National Transportation Safety Board report detailed how Villa and the pilot were on a routine patrol over Newport Beach at about 6:30 p.m. when they responded to a dispatch of a fight. The two flew over the area of the scrum and turned on an infrared camera.
Vella spotted the group fighting "and the pilot began to maneuver the helicopter in a tighter right orbit while (Vella) relayed his observations over the police radio channel," according to the NTSB report.
Officers on the ground arrived as the helicopter continued orbiting about 500 feet above.
"The pilot stated that he watched as ground patrol officers got out of their car and approached the group, who by this time had mostly dispersed," the NTSB reported. "He was concerned that one of the group was about to start fighting with an officer, and he slowed the helicopter to keep the camera aimed at the scene longer, so that they would not lose sight of it behind a building."
But, the NTSB reported, "Suddenly the helicopter yawed aggressively to the right, and he immediately applied full left foot pedal and forward cyclic to try and arrest the rotation, but there was no response."
The pilot continued to attempt to correct the helicopter, but it "began to progress into a spinning descent," the NTSB said.
Vella "transmitted over the police radio channel, `We're having some mechanical issues right now,' followed by, `we're going down, we're going down.' "
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The helicopter's rotating "became more aggressive as" it plunged toward the ground and the pilot struggled to correct it, "which appeared to be partially effective, but did not stop the rotation," the NTSB said.
The pilot said "the engine was operating throughout, and his goal was to continue to fly the helicopter with the engine still running, rather than reducing power and performing an auto rotation to a populated area," the NTSB said.
The darkness obscured the horizon and an accurate reference point, "but he could see the lights of houses approaching, and sensed impact was imminent, so he pulled the collective control in an effort to bleed off airspeed," the NTSB reported.
The helicopter slammed into the ocean "hard in a downward right rotation" on Vella's side, the NTSB reported.
"The pilot recalled a sudden smash and saw water and glass coming toward him as the canopy shattered. He felt the rotor blades hitting the water, everything then stopped, and within a few seconds he was submerged."
The pilot managed to get the mouthpiece from his rescue air bottle to breathe as he released his seat harness and pushed his way out of the wreckage to swim to the surface. Onlookers helped pull him toward a boat.
Vella started his law enforcement career with the Laguna Beach Police Department and moved to the Huntington Beach Police Department in 2008. At the HBPD, he worked a variety of assignments, including patrol, beach detail, SWAT and as a tactical flight officer.
In 2016, Vella was assigned to the Air Support Unit, where he earned the positions of police helicopter pilot and certified flight instructor.
"While I didn't have the honor of meeting Nick, the many stories I have heard about his dedication to our City, his family, and his law enforcement brothers and sisters make clear what a tremendous father, husband, son, friend, and officer he was," Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland said Sunday.
"The city of Newport Beach is honored to celebrate the life and sacrifice of Officer Pilot Vella," Newport Beach Mayor Noah Blom said. "His bravery and valor shall be remembered forever."
Vella is survived by his wife Kristi, daughter Dylan, father John, mother Marcella, and brother John Arthur.