California State Senator Wants Reality TV Safety Probe in Wake of Helicopter Crash

Discovery Helicopter Pilot - H 2013

Discovery Helicopter Pilot - H 2013

Ted W. Lieu tells THR that he plans to push for formal hearings into whether safety standards are adequate during shoots

A California state senator is pushing harder for formal hearings on the safety of those who create reality television shows in the wake of a Feb. 10 helicopter crash that killed three people working on a Discovery Channel project.

The early-morning incident at a 760-acre ranch in Acton, north of Los Angeles, occurred as the state Senate's labor and industrial relations committee is considering probing whether some reality TV shows are unsafe for those involved in the productions. State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, who chairs the committee, tells The Hollywood Reporter that he will push for such hearings to happen as early as June. He also has instructed his staff to investigate the crash and whether it is indicative of larger safety issues. 

STORY: Three Dead in Discovery Reality Show Helicopter Crash

“The goal of a reality TV show at some level is to shock the viewer,” says Lieu. “That’s why people watch it. So they are getting people to do some extreme actions which are going to be much less safe than, say, a comedy show.”

Lieu says that he has been concerned about safety issues surrounding reality TV for some time but it is too early to determine who's to blame for the copter crash that occurred at about 3:40 a.m. over the Polsa Rosa Ranch in a remote area. Still, the crash -- believed to be the deadliest incident on a film or television production since Combat! star Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed while making The Twilight Zone movie in 1982 --  has renewed concerns over safety issues, especially since reality TV shows increasingly market themselves as dangerous and the casts and crews largely are not represented by traditional entertainment industry guilds. 

“Reality TV shows have some different aspects than a nonreality TV show,” says Lieu. “Many are not unionized. Because of that they don’t have their union contract that has built-in safety provisions and procedures.

The FAA and NTSB are leading the investigation and could release their preliminary findings next week. The determination of the actual cause of the crash could take as long as 18 months.

After Twilight Zone, the FAA instituted new rules that include a requirement that pilots file a “flight manual” detailing plans for the shoot. It is believed, according to a source, that pilot David Gene Gibbs filed such a manual with the FAA.

Eyeworks (formerly 3 Ball), the production company in charge of the shoot, also would have had to have insurance and file for a waiver to shoot the helicopter scene.

Gibbs, 59, was killed in the crash of the Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, along with cameraman Darren Arthur Rydstrom, 45, and former Army Special Forces officer Michael Donatelli, 45.

A permit had been pulled through Film LA for “an untitled military project” that was to shoot between 5 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. Sunday.

The Discovery show was being made by an Eyeworks subsidiary called Bongo Inc., which is run by former Biggest Loser producers J.D. Roth and Todd Nelson. Their credits include ABC’s Extreme Makeover, Discovery’s Flying Wild Alaska, Spike’s Bar Rescue and the upcoming ABC diving show Splash.

In a statement, Eyeworks said it is fully cooperating with authorities and extended sympathy to the families of those killed but otherwise declined comment. Discovery also put out a short statement saying it also was "cooperating fully with authorities" and then declined to answer questions.

Gibbs, who operated as Crossbow Helicopters, was an experienced, highly qualified pilot with extensive show business experience. His long list of credits includes The Amazing Race, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Jackass 3D.

STORY: Army Special Forces Veteran Died in Reality Show Helicopter Crash

But an L.A. aviation source tells THR that Gibbs was involved in at least one or possibly two other helicopter crashes in the past six years. The source says that about six years ago Gibbs' copter hit electrical wires during a shoot, causing it to crash. There were no fatalities, and Gibbs continued to work. The source also says Gibbs was involved in another crash but is unable to provide any details.

Industry sources say that Gibbs' helicopter was being used to shoot footage as it flew over a ridge into a landing zone for a “big reveal” where there were lights and other cameras. There were no camera mounts in the helicopter, says the source, though Rydstrom -- a cinematographer whose credits include music videos for Tom Petty and Jenni Rivera (who died in a plane crash in December) -- was carrying a hand-held camera. There was also no special gyroscope equipment that often is used in shoots where the elevation off the ground is an issue.

Donatelli, a former Army Delta Force officer who did four tours in Iraq (and was a former Washington, D.C., police officer), is believed to have been a performer who was to be involved in the “reveal,” says the source.

The inclusion of nonentertainment industry figures in reality shows also concerns Lieu because he says it provides less incentive to safeguard talent.

“If you're doing a show and you have an ensemble of actors who are going to appear in the next season and the season after that, you have a high incentive to protect them from injury," Lieu says. A lot of these reality shows have a bunch of nonactors …and at the end of the season they will all be replaced with other folks so there is little incentive to try and protect the talent.”