Fourth in a series.
With all its car crashes, explosions, and hair-raising stunts, the film and TV industry is a notoriously dangerous business. But your chances of getting killed while making a movie go up dramatically the minute you step foot inside a helicopter. Indeed, helicopter crashes have taken more lives on film sets than any other type of accident in modern times. Since 1980, 33 film and TV workers — nearly one a year — have been killed in helicopter accidents around the world, 14 in the U.S. and 15 more for American companies shooting abroad.
In the 1980s, two crashes alone — both being shot on the cheap in the Philippines by the same production company — claimed nine lives in the span of just two years. The ’80s were by far the deadliest decade for helicopter crashes on movie sets, accounting for all but five of the 31 helicopter-related film and TV production fatalities in the last 34 years. The list:
In 1980, cameraman Robert Van Der Kar was killed while filming an episode of Magnum P.I. when the low-flying helicopter he was riding in crashed into the Pacific Ocean off of Hawaii. The pilot, Robert Sanders, was injured and his license was suspended for 90 days by the National Transportation Safety Board. That same year, legendary Indian action star Jayan was killed on a movie set while attempting to transfer from a speeding motorcycle to the skids of a low-flying helicopter that crashed on top of him. He was 41.
In 1981, director Boris Sagal, father of actress Katey Sagal, was killed in Oregon during production of NBC’s World War III miniseries when he accidentally walked into the spinning tail rotor of a helicopter. Katey Sagal had lost her mother five years earlier to heart disease.
The most famous accident in Hollywood’s history happened out at Indian Dunes, some 30 miles north of Los Angeles, in the early morning hours of July 23, 1982, when actor Vic Morrow and two children, Myca Dinh Le (age 6) and Renee Chen (age 7), were killed when a mis-timed special effects explosion brought a low-flying helicopter crashing down on top of them during filming of The Twilight Zone: The Movie. A sensational manslaughter trial resulted in the acquittals of director John Landis and the film’s associate producer, unit production manager, special effects coordinator, and helicopter pilot. But during a preliminary hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gordon Ringer scolded Hollywood for putting children’s lives at risk just to make a movie. “This isn’t nickelodeon-time anymore,” he said from the bench. “I would have thought that after 75 years, somebody might have thought it inappropriate to put Lillian Gish on an ice flow and send her into the middle of Niagara Falls to make a movie.” Gish was seriously injured while filming that scene for the 1920 silent film Way Down East.
The deaths on the set of Twilight Zone, however, were only three of nine caused by helicopter crashes during the same calendar year. Pilots David Perrin and Nigel Thorton and mechanic Jaron Anderson were killed when their helicopter crashed en route to a location shoot in Yugoslavia for Warner Bros’ High Road To China, starring Tom Selleck as a 1920s-era barnstorming pilot. That same year, producer Alastair Simon, cinematographer Garry Hansen and cameraman John Jasiwkowicz were killed when their helicopter crashed while making a TV commercial in Australia.
The year 1985 was another bad one for helicopter crashes; four more film workers were killed that year in three separate accidents. In January, 22-year-old stuntman Reid Rondell was burned to death, and his pilot was seriously injured, in a fiery helicopter crash in Valencia – just a few miles from the tragic site of the Twilight Zone crash – during production of CBS’ Airwolf. The Los Angeles County Coroner later determined Rondell had snorted cocaine shortly before the fatal crash. Two months later, pilot Rick Holley was killed in Alaska when his helicopter hit a power line and crashed en route to production of Cannon Film’s Runaway Train.
Four months after that, Italian actor Claudio Cassinelli and pilot Dan Nasca were killed in a helicopter crash in Arizona during filming of the film Mani De Pietra (Hands Of Stone). The pilot was attempting to fly under the Navajo Bridge, but the chopper struck the bridge and fell 400 feet into the Colorado River.
In May 1987, just hours after a jury acquitted Landis and the others in the Twilight Zone case, a Philippine Air Force helicopter hired for the filming of Cannon Films’ Braddock: Missing in Action III, starring Chuck Norris, crashed into Manila Bay, killing four Filipino soldiers and injuring five other people. In May 1989, five more people were killed in a helicopter crash on another Cannon Films pic, the low-budget Delta Force II, also starring Norris and also being shot in the Philippines. Pilot Don Marshall, stuntman Geoff Brewer, cameraman Gadi Danzig, key grip Mike Graham and pilot Jojo Imperiale were killed when their helicopter slammed into the side of a mountain.
Altogether, the 10 people killed in helicopter crashes on three different Cannon films over the course of four years accounted for nearly one-third of all helicopter-related movie deaths over the last 34 years — and nearly half the helicopter deaths on U.S. productions during that same stretch. Cannon went out of business in 1993.
The gruesome ’80s finished with one last helicopter-related fatality. It happened in 1989 during filming of a straight-to-video movie titled Hired To Kill when a helicopter crashed into a medieval fort on the island of Corfu, killing stuntman Clint Carpenter and injuring five others. “We either have to stop using helicopters altogether or stunt pilots should refuse to fly these choppers,” said the film’s distraught director, Nico Mastorakis, in the crash’s aftermath.
Since then, there have been four more filming-related fatal helicopter crashes:
In 2006, cameraman Roland Schlotzhauer was killed when the helicopter in which he was riding hit a power line and crashed in an Iowa cornfield during filming of a baseball movie called The Final Season.
In 2011, a helicopter shooting footage for digital television G4’s Campus PD reality series crashed into student housing at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, killing cameraman Greg Jacobsen and injuring three others in the chopper.
On February 4, 2012, American cinematographer Mike deGruy and Australian TV writer-producer Andrew Wight were killed when their helicopter crashed and burned on takeoff in eastern Australia. Wright, James Cameron’s documentary producing partner, had been piloting his R-44 helicopter so that deGruy could capture images from the air for the documentary film DeepSea Challenge 3-D. The film is a co-production of National Geographic and Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment. A blurb about the film on National Geographic’s website states: “The epic adventure of James Cameron’s dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench is coming to a theater near you in 2014. What would you be willing to risk to follow your dream? James Cameron was willing to risk it all.” It wasn’t a bad tagline until two men died following his dream. Last November, the deGruy’s estate filed a wrongful death suit against three of Cameron’s production companies: Lightstorm Entertainment, Earthship Productions, and the Cameron Pace Group.
On February 10, 2013, three more documentary filmmakers were killed in northern Los Angeles County when their helicopter crashed while filming a still untitled military-themed reality show for Discovery Channel. FAA records show that the pilot, 59-year-old David Gibbs, who was killed in the crash, had his pilot’s privileges suspended twice – for 30 days in 2003 for operating his helicopter in a “careless and reckless manner,” and for 45 days in 2007. Also killed in the crash were 46-year-old cameraman Darren Rydstrom and cast member Michael Donatelli, a 45-year-old father of five. His youngest child, Dominic, was 3 years old and after his father’s death packed a suitcase and told his mother that he wanted to go to California “with his Dad.” Donatelli’s family spoke to WPIX in his home state of Pennsylvania. He spent 23 years in the military and was a retired Green Beret/Ranger master sergeant and had served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a decorated veteran of war. “My husband was the best thing God ever put on the Earth,” said his grieving wife Gigi. “We have five kids and he loved them all. He loved his country.”
The crash, the worst filming accident in California since the Twilight Zone disaster, happened just 25 miles from the similar rural location in Santa Clarita where Morrow and two children were killed.