Los Angeles Helicopter Crash Takes the Life of Photographer and Pilot

A helicopter crash at the Port of Los Angeles resulted in the death of the two men aboard and a lengthy search by rescuers. The passenger killed in the Los Angeles helicopter crash was a well-known photographer on assignment for the port, while the pilot had a regular job as a director of strategic planning.

The helicopter accident occurred in the evening hours of January 4, 2017 in a black Robinson R22 helicopter and was witnessed by cruise ship passengers within the harbor, as well as people on the shore.

Helicopter Flight Intended as Short Aerial Photo Shoot

The Robinson R22 helicopter involved in the crash, which was registered to JJ Helicopters Inc., took off from Zamperini Field north of Long Beach with two passengers aboard: Pilot Christopher Reed, 41, and photographer Michael Justice, 61. Justice was a veteran freelance photographer who often did work for the port, the two men departed with the goal of capturing images of the three cruise ships that were docked in harbor—a rare occurrence. Justice had been hired by the port for the photo shoot.

At around 4:30 p.m. on January 4, 2017, Reed and Justice left the Torrance airport in the Robinson R-22. Justice had booked the helicopter for one hour. During their flight, Reed made no reports back to Torrance airport, and, at around 5:40 p.m., witnesses aboard the cruise ships within the harbor and nearby locations began to call 9-1-1 with reports of the downed aircraft. The U.S. Coast Guard is attempting to find out if Reed or Justice made any distress calls.  

Photo Credit: Fox 11 News

Lengthy Search Follows Los Angeles Helicopter Crash 

Witnesses aboard one of the cruise ships told authorities they saw the Robinson R-22 circle a cruise ship three times before crashing. Report placed the crash near the Angels Gate Lighthouse, which is located at the end of the Port of Los Angeles breakwater and near one of the two entrances to the port.

Following reports of the Los Angeles helicopter crash, officials closed the Los Angeles Harbor Entrance by Angels Gate and put a 1,000-foot safety zone in effect. Officials immediately began the search for the helicopter by both air and sea, but had to call off rescue efforts that night due to inclement weather. It would not be until 11:08 a.m. the next morning, Thursday, January 5, 2017, that Los Angeles Port Police would locate the downed helicopter using sonar equipment. The wreckage was found near the breakwater that stems from the Cabrillo Beach, and trapped under 15 to 20 feet of water. Both Reed and Justice appeared to have perished inside the aircraft.

Who Were the California Helicopter Accident Victims? 

Both victims of the crash were known in the community for their love of what they did.

Michael Justice: A Talented and Loved Photographer

Michael Justice, who was aboard the helicopter to photograph the cruise ships in harbor, had worked freelance with the Port of Los Angeles since 2010, and had an impressive resume that included shooting for the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, Forbes and National Geographic Adventurer. He had even spent time photographing Mother Teresa.

Beyond his talent, Justice was well loved by those who worked with him. Former Daily Breeze newspaper photojournalist Branimir Kvartuc, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, spoke fondly of his memories with Justice.

“He had a million stories to tell, but never forced them on you,” Kvartuc told the publication.
Port of Los Angeles spokesman Phillip Sanfield had similar praise.
“He was really an extended member of the harbor family,” Sanfield said of Justice. “He lived and breathed on the docks.”

On January 6, 2017, the Port of Los Angeles posted a video tribute to the deceased freelance photographer on their Twitter account, showcasing some of their favorite photos Justice had taken.

Christopher Reed: A Passionate Pilot 

Christopher Reed, who was piloting the Robinson R-22 during the crash, would have been 42 years old on January 7, 2017. In his daily life, Reed worked for Honeywell Aerospace as director of strategic planning, integrated supply chain. His love of flying, however, led him to take a part-time job at JJ Helicopters, flying photographers for photo shoots and giving tours.

Reed received his commercial pilot certification in 2016, and was licensed to fly rotorcraft helicopters, as well as multi and single-engine airplanes. Reed also had his own plane, a four-seat Mooney, which he would fly to national parks.

His mother, Holly Rossing, recalled her son’s skill as a pilot in the wake of the Los Angeles helicopter crash.

“He enjoyed flying," Rossing said to the Daily Breeze. “I flew with him. I was so used to the big airplanes when they land. They go ‘bounce bounce.’ It’s really scary. He’d just land wonderfully. It was just great.”

Chopper Crash Raises Alarms About Robinson R22 Helicopter 

The focus of the Los Angeles helicopter crash has not been solely on the occupants of the aircraft or the conditions of the crash, but also on the aircraft itself: The Robinson R22.
The crash on January 4, 2017 was the second Robinson R22 crash to occur in California within a week. The first—a December 29, 2016 hard landing at Mount Baldy—did not result in fatalities, but four people on board had to be rescued and one was flown to a trauma center.

Recently, New Zealand added Robinson R22 to its “most pressing concerns” watchlist, due to “mast bumping accidents” that have led to 18 deaths in the country in the past 20 years. Mast bumping accidents are often fatal for those on board because they typically cause the helicopter to break up while in flight. They occur when the inner part of a main rotor blade contacts the main rotor drive shaft.

Adding to the concerns of New Zealand’s Transportation Accident Investigation Commission, was the fact that four of their recommendations to decrease accidents had not been implemented by Robinson Helicopter.

What Caused the Robinson Helicopter Crash? 

The cause of the Los Angeles helicopter crash remains unknown, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hopes to have a preliminary report on the cause of the accident in the week of January 9, 2016. The full investigation and report are likely to take about a year.

NTSB officials are hoping to compile any video footage of the crash, as well as to speak to any witnesses. Those with video footage or who saw the helicopter crash are asked to contact the NTSB at witness@ntsb.gov