NTSB releases findings into what caused deadly Huntington Beach Police helicopter crash

The National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday released its preliminary findings of what led to the deadly Huntington Beach police helicopter crash in Newport Beach on Feb. 19.

The deadly crash claimed the life of Officer Nicholas Vella, 44, a 14-year veteran of the Huntington Beach Police Department. Vella was operating as the tactical flight officer the night of the crash.

According to the NTSB, the helicopter departed its home base at the Huntington Beach Police Department Heliport 6 p.m. and flew a routine patrol along the coast of Huntington Beach, inland to Costa Mesa, and then south to Newport Beach for the next 30 minutes. The pilot reported hearing over police radio about a fight in progress just south of their location. The pilot said that he redirected the helicopter toward the area and began a right-hand orbit while Vella, who was seated in the right seat, turned on the infrared camera and began searching the ground. Vella reportedly spotted a group fighting, and the pilot began to maneuver the helicopter in a tighter right orbit while Vella relayed what he was seeing over police radio.


Ground patrol officers arrived on the scene, and the pilot continued the orbits about 500 feet above ground level, while simultaneously viewing the activity through his monitor, and maneuvering the helicopter so Vella could continue to observe the altercation, according to the report. 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. 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. 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.

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The pilot continued to apply corrective control inputs, but the helicopter did not respond, and began to progress into a spinning descent, the NTSB investigation found. 

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". 

The pilot stated the rotation became more aggressive as the helicopter began to descend. He continued with corrective control inputs, which appeared to be partially effective but did not stop the rotation, the NTSB said. He stated that 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 autorotation to a populated area. 

"Because it was dark, he had no horizon or accurate external reference, 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 report reads. 

That's when the helicopter hit the water, hard in a downward right rotation, on Vella's side. 

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 stated that he continued to hold on to the collective as a reference point, then cleared the mouthpiece from his rescue air bottle, and began to use it to breath. Continuing to hold the collective with one hand he reached down and released his seat harness and pushed himself through the door opening. He floated to the surface and was pulled out of the water by civilians toward a boat. 

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