Thursday, February 24, 2022

MD Helicopters 500N (MD520N), N521HB: Fatal accident occurred February 19, 2022 in Newport Beach, Orange County, California

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

The National Transportation Safety Board did not travel to the scene of this accident. 

Additional Participating Entity:
Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Long Beach, California

Huntington Beach Police Department

Location: Newport Beach, California 
Accident Number: WPR22FA101
Date and Time: February 19, 2022, 18:34 Local
Registration: N521HB
Aircraft: McDonnell Douglas 500N 
Injuries: 1 Fatal, 1 Minor
Flight Conducted Under: Public aircraft

On February 19, 2022, about 1834 Pacific standard time, a McDonnell Douglas 500N, N521HB, was substantially damaged when it was involved in an accident in Newport Beach, California. The pilot sustained minor injuries, and the tactical flight officer (TFO) was fatally injured. The helicopter was operated as a public aircraft flight by the Huntington Beach Police Department.

The helicopter was owned by the City of Huntington Beach and was providing law enforcement air support under a contract service agreement for the City of Newport Beach. 

The helicopter departed its home base, Huntington Beach Police Department Heliport (CL65), at 1800, and for the next 30 minutes flew a routine patrol along the coast of Huntington Beach, inland to Costa Mesa, and then south to Newport Beach.

The pilot reported that as they were about to depart the Newport Beach area, they received a transmission over the primary police radio channel that there was a fight taking place just south of their location. The pilot stated that he redirected the helicopter toward the area and began a right-hand orbit while the TFO (who was seated in the right seat) turned on the infrared camera and began searching the ground. The TFO spotted a group fighting, and the pilot began to maneuver the helicopter in a tighter right orbit while the TFO relayed his observations over the police radio channel.

Ground patrol officers arrived on the scene, and the pilot continued the orbits about 500 ft above ground level, while simultaneously viewing the activity through his monitor, and maneuvering the helicopter so the TFO could continue to observe the altercation. 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. He continued to apply corrective control inputs, but the helicopter did not respond, and began to progress into a spinning descent. The TFO 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. 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.

They then hit the water hard in a downward right rotation, on TFO’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 egressed by pushing himself away with the collective and through the door opening. He exited the helicopter and ascended to the surface, and a short time later, onlookers began to arrive, and pulled him away and toward a boat.

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Aircraft Make: McDonnell Douglas 
Registration: N521HB
Model/Series: 500N 
Aircraft Category: Helicopter
Amateur Built:
Operating Certificate(s) Held: None
Operator Designator Code:

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site: VMC
Condition of Light: Night
Observation Facility, Elevation: KSNA,54 ft msl 
Observation Time: 18:53 Local
Distance from Accident Site: 5 Nautical Miles
Temperature/Dew Point: 17°C /8°C
Lowest Cloud Condition: Clear
Wind Speed/Gusts, Direction: 3 knots / , 210°
Lowest Ceiling: Broken / 23000 ft AGL
Visibility: 10 miles
Altimeter Setting: 30 inches Hg
Type of Flight Plan Filed: Company VFR
Departure Point: Huntington Beach, CA (CL65)
Destination: Newport Beach, CA

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 1 Fatal, 1 Minor 
Aircraft Damage: Substantial
Passenger Injuries: 
Aircraft Fire: None
Ground Injuries: 
Aircraft Explosion: None
Total Injuries: 1 Fatal, 1 Minor
Latitude, Longitude: 33.610368,-117.92438

Those who may have information that might be relevant to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation may contact them by email, and any friends and family who want to contact investigators about the accident should email You can also call the NTSB Response Operations Center at 844-373-9922 or 202-314-6290. 

Officer Nicholas Vella

Huntington Beach PD - 

It is with tremendous sorrow that we announce the passing of Officer Nicholas Vella, a 14-year veteran of HBPD. Officer Vella died this evening after our police helicopter, HB-1, crashed into the waters off Newport while responding to a call for service.

A second officer was injured and is in stable condition. Officer Vella leaves behind a wife and daughter. He served the community of Huntington Beach with honor and dignity.  Please join us in extending prayers to Officer Vella's family.

We want to thank the community and our law enforcement partners for your support during this difficult time.


  1. Deepest condolences for the 14-year veteran police officer pilot who lost his life in this crash. This looks like a possible failure of the anti-torque system due to the tight spiral that occurred leading up to the crash
    ADS-B data:

    News article with crash video and details about the hero pilot:

  2. I believe it is likely that this crash resulted from a failure of either the forward or center control cable that controls the NOTAR nozzle. A San Jose Police MD520N helicopter had a similar accident in 1999 after a forward control cable conduit cap failure. The FAA issued an AD at the time to address the problem and MD helicopters changed the heat treat process for the part.

    I found some limited information (link below) that suggests that a different Huntington Beach Police MD520N (N520HB) may have had a minor accident in the past after a center control cable failure, though I cannot find a date or more detailed information on this incident.

    Quote: "Pilot was practicing autorotation and felt a change in the pedals after touchdown, he attempted to hover by raising the collective, and the helicopter began to spin, he lowered the collective, and shutdown. No damage to the helicopter was noted. The rotating cone control cable was found to have a clean break. The other cables were inspected and found OK. PAN 500N72205 cable was inspected at the last 300 hr inspection and was found to be airworthy. This part is not a life limited part so no record of hours in service is available. Recommend a service life for the cable: 1000 hours." from:

    1999 San Jose MD520N NTSB Final Report

    FAA AD resulting from the San Jose crash