Preaccident photograph of the accident helicopter.

​Preaccident photograph of the accident helicopter. (​​Source: Island Express)

Rapid Descent into Terrain, Island Express Helicopters Inc. Sikorsky S-76B, N72EX

What Happened

On January 26, 2020, about 0946 Pacific standard time, a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, N72EX, entered a rapidly descending left turn and crashed into terrain in Calabasas, California. The pilot and eight passengers died, and the helicopter was destroyed. The on-demand flight was operated by Island Express Helicopters Inc. (Island Express), Long Beach, California, under visual flight rules and the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 135. The flight departed from John Wayne Airport-Orange County (SNA), Santa Ana, California, about 0907 and was destined for Camarillo Airport (CMA), Camarillo, California, about 24 miles west of the accident site.

After the helicopter departed from SNA, it flew at altitudes that remained below​ 1,700 ft mean sea level (msl) and generally between 400 to 600 ft above ground level (agl), and the flight's progress through controlled airspace en route to CMA was uneventful. Weather conditions reported to the pilot by air traffic controllers during the flight included an overcast ceiling at 1,100 ft agl, visibility of 2.5 miles with haze, and cloud tops at 2,400 ft msl.

At 0944:34 (about 2 minutes before the accident), while the helicopter was flying west at an altitude of about 1,370 ft msl (450 ft agl) over US Route 101 (US 101) and rising terrain, the pilot announced to an air traffic control facility that he was initiating a climb to get the helicopter "above the [cloud] layers," and the helicopter immediately began climbing at a rate of about 1,500 ft per minute. About the same time, the helicopter began a gradual left turn, and its flight path generally continued to follow US 101 below. About 36 seconds later and while still climbing, the helicopter began to turn more tightly to the left, and its flight path diverged from its overflight of US 101.

The helicopter reached an altitude of about 2,370 ft msl (about 1,600 ft agl) at 0945:15, then it began to descend rapidly in a left turn to the ground. At 0945:17 (while the helicopter was descending), the air traffic controller asked the pilot to "say intentions," and the pilot replied that the flight was climbing to 4,000 ft msl. A witness near the accident site first heard the helicopter then saw it emerge from the bottom of the cloud layer in a left-banked descent about 1 or 2 seconds before impact.

What We Found

T​he probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s decision to continue flight under visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in the pilot’s spatial disorientation and loss of control. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s likely self-induced pressure and the pilot’s plan continuation bias, which adversely affected his decision-making, and Island Express Helicopters Inc.’s inadequate review and oversight of its safety management processes.

What We Recommended

​​As a result of this investigation, we made two new safety recommendations each to the Federal Aviation Administration and Island Express.​