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Helicopter pilot in film set crash faced prior enforcement action

The pilot of a helicopter that crashed during production of a reality TV show had his pilot privileges suspended twice in the last decade, FAA records show.

February 19, 2013|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
  • A military helicopter.
A military helicopter. (File photo / Getty Images )

The pilot of a helicopter that crashed in Acton this month had his pilot privileges suspended twice in the last decade, Federal Aviation Administration records show.

David Gibbs, 59, of Valencia was among three people killed in an early morning crash at the Polsa Rosa Ranch on Feb. 10 during the production of a military-themed reality TV show for the Discovery Channel.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash, which was the worst film set accident in California since 1982, when star Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed by a helicopter that slammed into them during the filming of "Twilight Zone: The Movie." The deaths led to scrutiny of safety standards and prompted tougher rules for film crews.

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Records show that the Acton crash wasn't the first incident in which Gibbs has been involved.

The FAA suspended Gibbs' license for 30 days in December 2003 for operating a helicopter in a "careless and reckless manner." The enforcement action stemmed from a November 2002 incident in which Gibbs piloted a helicopter that flew into a power line as it was filming a motor home traveling on Route 66 in Kingman, Ariz., for an episode of "Ripley's Believe it or Not!," according to an NTSB report.

A second incident occurred in May 2004, when a helicopter that Gibbs was piloting during a film shoot rolled on its side while he attempted to land it, according to a separate NTSB report. Gibbs was not cited by the FAA after investigators determined that the incident probably was caused by power loss.

But in 2007 the FAA took further enforcement action against Gibbs, a veteran pilot who also did helicopter work for the show "The Amazing Race."

His pilot certificate was suspended for 45 days for "failing to remain in two-way-radio communication with air traffic controllers while flying in airspace in which two-way radio communication is required,'' the agency said. The records did not indicate where the incident occurred or whether he was participating in a film shoot.

The citations are likely to draw more scrutiny of the decision to hire Gibbs for the "Untitled Military Project" film shoot. Some aviation experts have questioned whether it was safe for a helicopter to be flying in darkness (about 3:30 a.m.) when visibility is poor over hilly terrain.

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"These are very serious citations," said Jon Kettles, a Dallas aviation attorney who has represented families of victims killed in aircraft accidents. "It raises a lot of questions about why he was hired and the safety of the entire operation."

The Acton show is being produced by Eyeworks USA, formerly 3 Ball Productions, best known for its series "The Biggest Loser."

A spokesperson for Eyeworks USA on Monday declined to comment on the enforcement actions, as did a representative of Discovery Channel.

Producers had clearance from the FAA before they could film the nighttime copter scene. They have so far declined to comment on the circumstances of the crash, citing the pending investigations.

Darren Rydstrom, 45, of Whittier, a crew member; and Michael Donatelli, 45, of Indiana, Pa., a cast member, also were killed in the incident, which occurred on a 730-acre ranch in northern Los Angeles County that is a popular film location.

The Acton crash has triggered further debate in Hollywood about safety levels on reality TV shows. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times revealed that pressure to capture dramatic footage and cut costs has caused serious and in some cases fatal accidents on certain types of reality TV programs.

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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