By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Smoke from crash visible on UCSD’s HP Wren camera
October 23, 2017 (San Diego’s East County) – The small plane that crashed late Saturday afternoon east of the El Capitan Reservoir, sparking a 20-acre brush fire during a red flag warning for high fire danger, was an Extra EA-300/L plane registered to KD Leasing in Henderson, Nevada, National Transportation Safety Administration (NTSA) records indicate.
The company Sky Combat Ace reportedly offered aerobatics rides with the plane to thrill-seeking passengers out of Gillespie Field. Sky Combat Ace even allowed paid passengers the opportunity to fly the plane in aerobatics and air combat simulations with “no experience necessary,” though dual controls allow the pilot to take control if needed, according to their website. The Sky Combat plane that went down had taken off from Gillespie en route to Nevada, NBC 7 reports.
Sky Combat Ace had a prior fatal crash of the same model plane in Nevada, after that same plane had previously been cited by the Federal Aviation Administration for violating federal law with illegal and dangerous maneuvers, the Las Vegas Journal-Review reported in May 2016. According to an FAA enforcement letter pending at that time, the plane executed an aileron or barrel roll “below 1,500 feet above the surface over the Colorado River” near Hoover Dam in 2015 that was “so careless or reckless so as to endanger the life or property of another.”
In last year’s crash of a plane that took off from Las Vegas for a bachelor party, the pilot took off during a thunderstorm that led some passengers to forfeit hefty fees rather than take the flight due to weather concerns.The company contended at the time that weather was not a factor in the crash. The company has also had multiple close calls in the past including mechanical failures and running over a mechanic on a runway, as well as complaints from residents in Nevada of stunts over neighborhoods. Despite this the company still touts a safe record on its site, though notes such activities have inherent risks.
It is not yet known what caused the fatal crash that s presumed to have killed the pilot and a passenger. The U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land where the plane went down, has indicated the crash was “unsurvivable,” News 8 reports.
A post on Brush Fire Partyline’s Facebook page Saturday indicated a nearby resident saw aerobatics maneuvers being performed in the vicinity shortly before the crash. The identities of the victims have not yet been released.
FAA records indicate that in recent years, several deaths have occurred annually from aerobatics stunts, usually at air shows.
The crash raises serious questions about safety of such activities and risks to passengers that may not be adequately disclosed.
The risk to neighboring residents is also an issue. Residents in Nevada have complained of stunts near homes.
"I have seen aerobatic planes do barrel rolls over 67 headed north/east. The aerobatics planes will buzz the Christian Aviation School in Santee," Robert Germann told East County Magazine. He adds, "The fundamental question is why do aerobatic maneuvers over mountains. The terrain and the varying heat issues are only two of the concerns. Why not over the desert or water? Borrego Springs Airport is the practice area for these type of aircraft. The Aerobatic Club moved from Oceanside Airport to Borrego Airport a while back because of noise and safety issues."
Locally, the fire caused by this crash led retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief Bob Robeson to issue a warning for Lakeside’s El Monte and Eucalyptus Hills residents to “prepare for the worst” given the high winds and lack of access for ground crews late in the day when the plane went down.
There is also the issue of firefighting costs incurred by multiple agencies in order to douse the blaze caused by the crash, and the impact of a fiery crash on public lands to recreational use and wildlife in a region already scarred by multiple past major wildfires, including the 2003 Cedar Fire and the deadly 2007 firestorms that occurred 10 years ago to the very date of this plane crash, sparking a half million evacuations, costing 10 lives, and burning thousands of homes.