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On January 25, 2008, about 2257 Pacific standard time, a Robinson Helicopter Company (Robinson) R22, N705JJ, was destroyed after impacting the southbound lanes of the Harbor Freeway Interstate 110 (I-110) in Los Angeles, California. JJ Helicopters, Inc., was operating the helicopter under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The private pilot, the sole occupant, was killed. The personal night cross-country flight originated from El Monte, California, and was destined for the operator's base at Zamperini Field in Torrance, California. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and a flight plan had not been filed.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator reviewed voice recordings between the pilot and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Air Traffic Control personnel. The tape recordings revealed that the pilot made initial contact at a self-reported position of the I-110 and Staples Center. He requested a southbound transition over the I-110 and a controller immediately cleared the helicopter through the LAX Class Bravo airspace. The pilot queried if there was an altitude restriction on his route, to which the controller replied "Affirmative, at or below 500 feet and at Century [Boulevard] frequency change approved." The pilot read back the altitude restriction.
Radar data for this accident was obtained from Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (SCT). Review of this data showed an aircraft with transponder code 1200 following the I-110 freeway southbound. The targets for the aircraft began at I-110 and I-10 at 2253:15, and continued south toward the accident site. The 3 minutes 14 seconds prior to the last hit, the target oscillated between 200 and 400 feet mean sea level (msl). The last target was observed at 2256:57, at an altitude of 400 feet msl, and located adjacent to Century Boulevard (Blvd).
A Safety Board investigator interviewed several witnesses following the accident. The witnesses recalled observing a small helicopter ahead of them while driving their automobiles southbound on the I-110 in the accident area. One witness reported that the helicopter was flying unusually low, operating not much higher than a typical freeway overpass. He then observed a bright spark above in contrast to the very dark sky, which he characterized as similar to a sparking firework. The helicopter then dove toward the freeway impacting the asphalt directly in front of him. Another witness recalled that the helicopter was flying very low over the far right lane. As she continued down the freeway, she observed the helicopter gradually cross over lanes toward the center divider, moving laterally with the nose pointed in the same southerly direction. The helicopter maintained the course over the center divider and a carpool lane [far left lane] for about 10 to 15 seconds. She then observed a bright streak or spark in the air; the helicopter appeared to explode and crash onto the freeway directly in front of her automobile.
An additional witness, a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, reported that he observed a helicopter flying low, just above tree-top height. He noted that it was moving very fast and concluded that it was most likely a law enforcement helicopter responding to a "hot" call. The helicopter gradually moved from the west edge of the traffic lanes toward the center divider, while still moving fast toward the south. He then witnessed the helicopter impact the middle area of the freeway and slide toward the center divider erupting into flames.
During an interview with the pilot''s certificated flight instructor (CFI), he stated that the pilot began his flight training in mid October and obtained his private pilot license on November 01, 2007. The night of the accident, the CFI was scheduled to fly with the pilot roundtrip from Torrance to El Monte. Upon arrival at the operator's facilities, the pilot seemed down and indicated that he wanted to perform a solo flight that night. The CFI explicitly conveyed to the pilot that if he chose to utilize the I-110 transition to fly to El Monte, he would have to be cautious due to the LAX air traffic landing to the east as a result of the wind direction.
The CFI further stated that at 2014 (about an hour after the pilot departed), the pilot called him on his cellular telephone stating that he was in El Monte and having problems with his new noise-cancellation headsets. The CFI detailed a few procedures to troubleshoot the problem, and the pilot indicated that he was returning to Torrance shortly.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airman and Medical records, the 29-year-old pilot held a private pilot certificate with a rating for rotorcraft helicopter. The pilot was issued a first-class medical certificate on November, 01, 2007, with no limitations. No personal flight records were recovered for the pilot.
The pilot completed the Robinson Pilot Safety Course on January 17, 2008, at which time he reported having amassed 54 hours total time all conducted in the R22 helicopter. On his application for the course he stated that he was eventually working toward becoming a certified flight instructor (CFI). The instructor that performed the pilot's flight evaluation spoke with a Safety Board investigator. He stated the pilot was average and aside from seeming nervous he performed as expected for the amount of experience he had flying.
A review of the pilot's cellular phone records were obtained from a family member. The last text message sent from the pilot's cellular phone occurred on the day of the accident at 1925; the last phone call was placed to the operator at 2227. Between 2012 and the last call, a duration of about 2 hours 15 minutes, 18 calls were placed, most of which were to an unknown number in Ontario, California.
The helicopter, serial number 4180, was equipped with a Lycoming O-360-J2A (serial number L-40872-36E). Review of the helicopter's records revealed that it had accumulated an estimated 420 hours at the time of the accident. The last 100-hour inspection took place on January 20, 2008, 15.9 hours prior to the accident.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT
The helicopter main wreckage, consisting of the fuselage and engine, came to rest in the far left lane of the seven-lane southbound side of I-110. The wreckage was located almost immediately above Century Blvd., which extends perpendicular (and under) the interstate. The elevation at the accident site was about 150 msl. Powerlines, spanning 690 feet, were located adjacent to the wreckage with two major support structures (unlit) on either side of the interstate, referenced as Towers 1212 and 1211 by the City of Los Angeles Water and Power (LADWP). The wires were oriented east-west and the highest wires consisted of two static lines both on the same horizontal plane. A LADWP superintendent reported that the static wires measured about 120 feet in height. The superintendent additionally stated that an examination of the wires crossing the interstate revealed that the southern most static wire contained a 6- to 8-inch abrasion in the galvanized steel.
Tower 1212, located west of the freeway, was about 119 feet tall, and Tower 1211 on the east side was about 139 feet. According to the LADWP those are the highest transmission towers adjacent to the I-110. The static wires are typically 0.5 inches in diameter. There were no records found of previous complaints about the wire height.
A detailed wreckage and impact report with accompanying pictures is contained in the public docket for this accident.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL
The County of Los Angeles Department of the Coroner performed an autopsy on the pilot. The FAA Toxicology Accident Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, performed toxicological testing; the specimens tested negative for carbon monoxide, cyanide, and ethanol. The pilot's body was consumed by fire. According to the Corner, embedded in the pilot's left hand was a thermally destroy cellular telephone.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
A Safety Board investigator examined the wreckage on May 21 and 22, at the Robinson facilities, Torrance, California. Representatives from Robinson Helicopter and Textron Lycoming Engines were present at the examination. The wreckage had been recovered and placed into storage prior to the examination.
The wreckage consisted of the engine and airframe, both of which had been subjected to fire. Examination of the airframe revealed that most of the control push-pull tubes and fuselage structure were consumed by fire, with thermally damaged remnants of the bellcranks, cyclic, collective, and anti torque pedals remaining. Examination of the landing skids revealed that they were separated from the fuselage structure. Scrape damage on the right inboard skid was observed from the forward tip continuing aft about 42 inches. The scrape marking was in a diagonal braided pattern. The right forward landing skid strut exhibited a circular impression about 1/4 inch deep, approximately 9 inches upwards from the skid mount.
The engine remained attached to the fuselage structure. External examination revealed that the engine exhibited thermal damage. Mechanical rotational continuity was established throughout the engine and valve train when the crankshaft was rotated by hand using the engine cooling fan. Thumb compression was obtained on all four cylinders in proper firing order. The cylinders were examined internally using a lighted borescope and exhibited normal operational signatures according to the Lycoming representative.
There was no evidence of mechanical malfunction or failure found during the examination. The complete examination report of the wreckage is contained in the public docket for this report.