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On December 30, 2004, about 1143 Pacific standard time, a Eurocopter AS350BA, N410JC, impacted a mountainside and crashed onto a road. The accident occurred while the pilot was maneuvering during a low altitude aerial photography filming operation. The accident occurred about 1.8 nautical miles (nm) west of Panamint Springs, California, in the Death Valley National Park. The helicopter was destroyed and the airline transport certificated pilot was seriously injured. There were two passengers on board, a director and a cameraman. The director was seriously injured, and the cameraman was fatally injured. The helicopter was owned and operated by Jetcopters, Inc., Van Nuys, California. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed. The flight was performed under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91 with a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorized waiver from compliance with sections of the minimum safe altitude provisions of 14 CFR Part 119. The flight originated from Panamint Springs about 1100.
The film crew's director, who was located in the front, left seat of the helicopter, reported to the National Transportation Safety Board investigator that during the flight she had requested the pilot maneuver his helicopter into a position that would allow the cameraman to film a prototype automobile for a commercial. After the initial filming operation was completed, the pilot landed in Panamint Springs to allow the cameraman to change lenses. The accident occurred during the subsequent filming operation.
The driver of the prototype car reported that the purpose of the aerial flight was to make a commercial for the car's manufacturer. The driver stated that he had previously worked with the helicopter pilot, and he was familiar with the requirements of the photo mission.
The driver also stated that, during the photo shoot, he had communicated with the pilot using a two-way radio. The pilot directed him to start, stop, turn around, et cetera. Following the established protocol, during the photo shoot the highway was blocked off by law enforcement officers. Only personnel related to the photo mission were allowed inside the cordoned off area.
The accident occurred during the next to the final shoot. The car's driver reported that the aerial cameraman had previously filmed him while he was driving in a westerly direction on the outside lane of the two-lane highway. (The outside lane was located adjacent to the cliff.) Then, the pilot instructed the driver to reverse course and proceed in an easterly direction over the inside lane. (The inside lane was adjacent to the upsloping mountainside.) There were no shoulders on either side of the highway in the vicinity of the accident site.
The driver further reported that, initially, the helicopter was following his car, which was proceeding in an easterly direction, while the helicopter was flying over the valley (northwest of the car). Then, the helicopter moved closer to the car. At one point the car passed directly beneath the helicopter. At this time, the car was traveling between an estimated 45 to 50 miles per hour.
The driver reported that just before the accident he entered a portion of the road that curved to the right, in a clockwise direction, and he remained in his lane, which was next to the mountainside. The driver lost visual contact with the helicopter. Seconds later, the driver heard the sound of an impact. The driver called the pilot on his radio, but no response was received. The driver reversed his course and proceeded back toward the curve in the road whereupon he observed the downed helicopter.
A California Highway Patrol officer, who was providing security for the film company, reported that she was trailing the car in an easterly direction. The car went around a bend in the road and she did not observe it. Upon arriving in the same area of the highway, the officer observed rocks and debris on the road, mist in the air, and the sound of particles impacting her patrol car. Seconds later, as the officer rounded the bend in the highway, she observed the downed helicopter.
The pilot was the owner of Jetcopters, Inc. He held an airline transport pilot certificate with an airplane multiengine land rating. He had commercial pilot privileges for airplane single engine land and rotorcraft-helicopter. The pilot also held a certified flight instructor (CFI) certificate for single and multiengine airplanes, and rotorcraft-helicopter. The CFI certificate had expired in 2001.
The pilot reported that his total flight time was over 8,000 hours, of which over 4,000 hours were in rotorcraft. The pilot had over 300 hours of flight time in the accident model of helicopter.
During the 90-day and 30-day period immediately preceding the accident, the pilot had flown a total of 93 and 30 hours, respectively. During this period, 68 and 27 hours had been flown in the accident model of helicopter.
The pilot successfully completed a FAR 135 airman competency/proficiency check flight with an FAA inspector in the accident helicopter on March 9, 2004.
In 1998 the FAA issued a normal category, standard, airworthiness certificate to the Eurocopter AS350BA, serial number 2130.
A Tyler Helicopter Camera Mount had been installed for the cameraman's use during the accident flight. The mount provided a gyro-stabilized platform for the attached camera. Under the Safety Board investigator's supervision, the mounting attachment hardware in the helicopter was examined with representatives from Tyler Camera Systems. The camera mount assembly was found attached pursuant to its manufacturer's specifications, according to the representative.
The helicopter's height is about 10.3 feet.
The pilot/operator reported that the helicopter was maintained pursuant to FAA requirements and Eurocopter's maintenance program. The pilot/operator held an air carrier operating certificate for on-demand air taxi operations.
A review of the maintenance records did not reveal evidence of unresolved/open maintenance items pertinent to the accident flight. The pilot reported he believed the helicopter was airworthy.
The closest aviation weather observation station to the accident site is located at China Lake NASW, elevation 2,283 feet mean sea level. China Lake (KNID) is about 40 nm south of the accident site.
In pertinent part, at 1056, KNID reported its surface wind was calm, and the visibility was 65 miles. Few clouds were observed at 18,000 and 21,000 feet. Scattered clouds were observed at 24,000 feet. The temperature and dew point were 6 and minus 17 degrees Celsius, respectively. The barometric pressure was 30.38 inches of mercury.
At 1356, KNID reported its surface wind was variable at 3 knots. The visibility and cloud condition remained unchanged. The temperature and dew point were 9 and minus 17 degrees Celsius, respectively. The barometric pressure decreased to 30.28 inches of mercury.
The film director stated that, at the time of the accident, the weather conditions were excellent. The helicopter ride was not bumpy, and the visibility was unrestricted.
The officer, who arrived at the accident site seconds after the mishap, indicated that the wind was calm upon her arrival. The air temperature was about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The visibility was unrestricted.
The automobile driver, who arrived at the accident site about 1 minute after the crash, estimated that the wind was light and variable. He stated that, occasionally thereafter, there were gusts to 10 or 15 knots, and dust would blow up into the air. The visibility was unrestricted.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The accident occurred about 1.8 nautical miles (nm) west (267 degrees, magnetic) of Panamint Springs. The initial point of impact (IPI) was identified by the presence of dislodged mountainside rocks and main rotor blade fragments strewn along the mountainside and adjacent to the eastbound lane of California State Highway 190. The highway is two lanes wide, for a total width of 24 feet. The approximate global positioning system (GPS) coordinates for the IPI area on the mountainside were about 36 degrees 20.731 minutes north latitude by 117 degrees 30.271 minutes west longitude.
The elevation of the IPI area was estimated at 2,730 feet mean sea level (msl), about 30 feet (vertical distance) above the highway's elevation. Fragments from a main rotor blade(s) were noted at this location, a few yards south of the eastbound lane. An impact-damaged main rotor blade tip (referred to by Eurocopter as an "end blank with tracking finger") and blade foam core material was found at the base of the mountainside, adjacent to the south side of the road. (The blade tip was photographed in the location where it was found; see photographs).
Gouges in the surface of the highway's westbound lane were observed about 120 feet east-northeast of the mountainside rocks/helicopter debris field. A few yards north of the gouge marks, the highway's guardrail was observed bent. The FAA coordinator reported that the helicopter's right skid was located in this area.
The helicopter's main wreckage was found partially inverted about 126 feet farther east-northeast from the gouge marks on the westbound highway lane, and about 246 feet from the IPI area. The main wreckage was resting against a restraining guardrail, elevation 2,685 feet msl, approximately.
The instrument panel was found partially dislodged from its attachment structure and the fuselage's roof was crushed in a downward direction into the cockpit.
The entire tail boom, with the attached tail rotor assembly, was located down an embankment, about 40 feet north of the main wreckage.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
The pilot's wife reported that prior to the accident her husband had been in excellent health.
The pilot's last FAA aviation medical certificate was issued in the second-class on May 3, 2004. It bore the restriction that the pilot must wear corrective lenses.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
Airframe and Engine Examination.
FAA aviation safety inspectors performed the initial on-scene examination of the helicopter, and the Safety Board investigator along with the FAA performed follow-up examinations following the helicopter's recovery from the accident site.
In summary, the main rotor blades were found damaged from the tip inboard about 18 inches. The three blades' ends were shattered. The tail boom was found separated from the remainder of the fuselage. All of the pitch change links were intact.
An examination of rotating components within the tail rotor system did not reveal any abnormalities. The tail rotor blades were impact-damaged, but otherwise intact. A rotational check of observable engine components, and an examination of the fuel control, governor, linkage, pulleys, and control rod attachments did not reveal evidence of preimpact damage. No evidence of foreign object damage was observed in the engine.
The emergency fuel shut off was in the off position (fuel on) and the fuel flow control was in flight configuration. The FAA coordinator reported that no evidence was found indicating the helicopter was not airworthy prior to the accident flight. There was no evidence of fire.
Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) Recording Data.
An impact-damaged, but functional, Garmin GPSMAP model 295 receiver was found in the helicopter wreckage. The receiver's nonvolatile memory was downloaded following its manufacturer's protocol and reviewed by the Safety Board investigator. In pertinent part, the receiver was found to have recorded tracklog (breadcrumb) data, which showed a tracklog in a northerly direction from the Southern California area and which terminated following a counterclockwise orbit near Panamint Springs. No tracklog data existed in the vicinity of the accident site.
Video Recording Data.
The cameraman's video camera was recovered from the wreckage and was examined by personnel at the Safety Board's Vehicle Recorder Division, Washington, D.C. An "On Board Video Recording" group was formed to review the recording and to prepare a factual report. The group's chairman reported that the impact-damaged camera was in the operating mode at the time of the accident. The tape found within the camera was extracted and examined.
The tape was found in good condition and exhibited minor mechanical damage (such as folds and kinks), but no splicing or repairing was required for the tape to be viewed. The tape contained about 9 minutes of recorded video and audio. The recording began with the accident helicopter already in the air, and it ended during the impact sequence.
The tape primarily showed images of the car as it was driven on the roadway and images of the surrounding landscape. The sky condition is mostly sunny with some clouds on the horizon. No images of the cockpit or pilot were recorded by the camera, which was mounted outside of the helicopter.
The audio portion of the recording was recorded at a very low level, and only the pilot's voice was recorded. Virtually all of the audible conversation was of the pilot talking to the driver of the car being filmed. The car driver's voice is never heard. The pilot also appears to communicate with other people on the ground.
In part, during the later portion of the recording the helicopter appears to be maneuvering and following the car, flying alongside it, approaching it from behind, from the front, and from each side. The roadway is winding and has varying elevations. At times the road is adjacent to rapidly rising terrain along its south side, and a drop off on the opposite north side.
The nature of the audio indicates that the pilot is continuously providing instructions to the car driver about positioning and speed of the car in relation to the helicopter. The pilot gives commands such as: slow down, speed up, turn around if you can, come ahead, drive away, and action.
The helicopter's altitude above the ground, and distance form the car, varies throughout the recording. At times, the helicopter is below the altitude of the car/roadway, when the roadway is elevated along a ridge or adjacent to a valley. At times, the helicopter flies in close proximity to the terrain below, as well as laterally when maneuvering to capture particular video "shots" of the car. During the last couple of minutes before the accident, the helicopter follows the car through several roadway curves while filming behind, in front of, and alongside the car.
Seconds prior to the crash, the helicopter appears to "chase" after the car while initially on a relatively constant easterly heading. As the car comes into view ahead of the helicopter, off the helicopter's right side, the helicopter gains on the car. About 3 seconds before the crash, the pilot says, "faster if you can faster." The helicopter starts a right turn to follow the car around a right-hand curve in the roadway, when it appears that a main rotor blade(s) strikes the steep rocky hillside adjacent to the right (south) side of the roadway, at or near the apex of the curve.
Motion Picture and Television Operations Manual, Requirements.
On October 28, 2004, personnel from the Van Nuys, California, FAA Flight Standards District Office (VNY FSDO) completed their examination of the pilot's submitted "Motion Picture and Television Operations Manual." The FAA accepted the pilot's manual. The following statement was included in the Manual's preface: "All flight operations must be conducted in accordance with the attached FAA accepted Motion Picture and Television Filming manual and waiver including any special provisions attached thereto."
Included in the Manual was a "Certificate of Waiver or Authorization" that the VNY FSDO manager had issued to the pilot for motion picture and television filming. In pertinent part, in the Certificate the VNY FSDO manager waived specific minimum safe altitude regulations for the pilot's flight operations. The identified regulations were, in part, 14 CFR Part 91.119 (b) and (c). In addition, the Certificate listed 16 special provisions that the pilot, who was the identified certificate holder, was "responsible for" by his "strict observance" of its provisions.
Regarding the waived Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) for Minimum Safe Altitude, and Special Provisions, the "Certificate of Waiver or Authorization" waived the following sections of 14 CFR Part 91.119:
Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:
Part 91.119 (b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.
Part 91.119 (c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.
Another regulation (14 CFR Part 91.119 (d)) pertinent to the flight and not waived states, in relevant part, that helicopters may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (b) or (c) of this section if the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface.
Regarding the Waiver's Special Provision number 1, the "controls, procedures, and conditions set forth in the Certificate Holder's Motion Picture and Television Operations Manual are the primary assurance that persons on the surface will not be jeopardized."
Special Provision number 7 states that the "aircraft may not be flown along a path that would require excessive maneuvering to avoid persons on the surface in the event of an emergency."
Special Provision number 9 states, in part, that Part 91.119 (c) is waived only with respect to consenting persons, vehicles and structures directly involved in the performance of the actual filming.
Special Provision number 14 states, in part, that the "certificate holder must submit three days prior to scheduled filming, a written plan of activities to the FSDO having jurisdiction over the area of proposed filming. The three-day notification may be waived with the concurrence of the FSDO. Justification of the exception to the three-day requirement is required."
Special Provision number 16 states, in part, that the aircraft operator shall "obtain prior approval from the FSDO responsible for the geographic area for each flight by requesting this with their written Plan of Activities form."
Motion Picture Manual, Permissions to Operate.
Section F of the Manual states, in part, that before filming "appropriate governmental agencies shall be contacted and their required permission and/or permits, if any, obtained." Additionally, regarding states and the federal government, on occasion the permission to operate may involve more than one agency. In this case, permission must be granted from each agency. The Manual also indicates that detailed information about the area may be obtained by referencing area charts.
After all permissions have been granted, the FAA FSDO "having jurisdiction over the proposed filming area shall be contacted and a Plan of Activities submitted."
Plan of Activities.
A letter from personnel in the VNY FSDO, dated December 29, 2004, was found in the wreckage. The letter was addressed to the accident pilot. In pertinent part, the letter stated that the "...motion picture plan of activities for the proposed operation scheduled for December 30, 2004, has been received, reviewed, and accepted...." Appended to the letter was a map with a circle around the Panamint Springs area where the automobile commercial was to be filmed.
FAA Procedures and Orders.
According to the Las Vegas, Nevada, FAA coordinator, the accident occurred within the geographical area of airspace/land assigned to the Las Vegas FSDO, not the Van Nuys FSDO. The coordinator reported to the Safety Board investigator that Las Vegas FSDO's personnel were not advised of the planned December 30, 2004, filming operation. They first learned of the event following the accident. Accordingly, they were not afforded the opportunity to evaluate whether or not in-person/on-site surveillance of the filming operation would be desirable and/or accomplished.
Under Chapter 53 of FAA Order 8700.1, number 4, Inspector Responsibilities, it states that the "inspector's responsibility is to provide adequate surveillance of the filming event and to ensure compliance with the provisions of the authorizations and/or waiver, and the Plan of Activities.
In number 5 of the FAA Order, it states, "after reviewing the Plan of Activities, the FSDO manager or designee who has geographic responsibility, may determine that on-site surveillance is required."
The FSDO inspector who accepted the operator's filming operation plan did not perform surveillance of the operation, which was outside of his FSDO's geographic area of responsibility.
Aeronautical Chart Data.
The Panamint Springs accident site area is located within the Death Valley National Park, and it is depicted on the Las Vegas Sectional Aeronautical Chart. The charted area is encompassed by the prescribed visual flight rules legend symbol for "Special Conservation Areas" including national parks, wildlife refuge, primitive and wilderness areas.
According to the Chief Park Ranger of the Death Valley National Park, the required permit for the filming operation had not been provided to the pilot or the film production company. The Death Valley National Park was neither requested to, nor did it, grant permission for the aerial filming operation. Moreover, had the pilot requested such permission for low altitude (below 2,000 feet above ground level) filming, the National Park management would have denied the pilot's request and would have likely suggested alternate locations outside the National Park.
The helicopter wreckage was released to the recovery agent for the helicopter's owner's insurance company on March 10, 2005. No helicopter parts were retained.