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Details released on California copter crash that killed Indiana County native

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Michael Donatelli of White Township, Indiana County, was in the Army Special Forces. He died in a helicopter crash while filming a TV reality show in California on Feb. 10, 2013. Submitted

Investigators are still working to determine why a helicopter suddenly dropped and slammed into a valley wall in California on Feb. 10, killing all three men aboard, including a Special Forces veteran from Indiana County.

Michael Donatelli, 45, of White Township died in the predawn helicopter crash while filming a military-themed reality TV show for the Discovery Channel, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report on the accident.

Also killed were pilot David Gibbs, 59, of Valencia, Calif., and cameraman Darren Rydstrom, 45, of Whittier, Calif.

Donatelli was a cast member in the unnamed show that was filming on Polsa Rosa, a “movie ranch” in Acton, north of Los Angeles.

According to the NTSB report, the Bell 206 JetRanger crashed about 3:30 a.m.,just after it had taken off.

The latest report discloses more details on the events leading up to the crash but does not indicate a probable cause.

The NTSB reported that the film crew's tentative plan was for “an actor to drop a backpack to the ground while the helicopter was in a hover, enabling the cameras to film the airborne actor, the backpack receiver on the ground and the helicopter executing the mission.”

Gibbs had filed a required plan-of-action waiver for the flight with the Federal Aviation Administration, the federal report said.

The helicopter was traveling along a valley toward a plateau, where Donatelli was to be filmed dropping the backpack to the ground.

“Witnesses observed the helicopter depart normally and fly toward the plateau from east to west. While maneuvering about 60 miles per hour, the helicopter suddenly pitched down and collided with the terrain below the valley's wall,” the report said.

“The production crew had expected the helicopter to perform high passes prior to maneuvering around near the plateau for the action shot and did not have the cameras (yet) on the ground set up for filming.”

Debris from the crash was spread over a 170-foot area, the report said.

Investigators said Gibbs and Rydstrom had filmed a previous drop with a different actor about six hours earlier without incident. The production crew and Gibbs then took a meal break, and Gibbs subsequently “slept” in a trailer for almost two hours before resuming filming.

After he awoke, Gibbs held a meeting to discuss lighting with crew members, the NTSB said. The valley was illuminated by lights erected on cranes facing the plateau, but Gibbs requested “that another smaller light be erected to illuminate the sloping terrain just below. ... He additionally requested that glow sticks be placed in a line on the ridge to lead up to the drop zone.”

The NTSB reported that all of Gibbs' requests were granted.

Gibbs had to remove frost that had formed on the main rotor blades and windshield before takeoff, the report said.

The investigators have confiscated the damaged helicopter and the visual and audio recording devices for review.

More details will be released in several months once investigators compile a more detailed report. A five-member NTSB panel will examine evidence collected by investigators and rule on the cause of the crash months after the report is released.

Donatelli and his wife, Grisel, were the parents of five children, ages 3 to 21, and had one grandchild.

Donatelli coached Indiana University of Pennsylvania's boxing club. In the 1980s, he earned a 69-6 record boxing for the Indiana County Athletic Club and twice fought future world champion Michael Moorer of Monessen in Golden Gloves competition. He won a bronze medal in the Junior Olympics in Lake Placid in 1984 and coached boxing at clubs in Washington, Miami and Puerto Rico.

A 1985 Indiana Area Senior High School graduate, he joined the Army after high school and served four years in the 1st Ranger Battalion before becoming a Washington police officer. He re-entered the military, joining the Special Forces as an engineer sergeant, and served four tours in Iraq as a member of the Army's elite Delta Force.

After retiring from the service, Donatelli and fellow veteran Mike Evok in 2008 founded AMJ Security and Vehicle Training, a consultant firm based in North Carolina.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or

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