The possibility that recreational skydiving operations in Lake Elsinore were interfering with firefighting aircraft over the Holy Fire in the Cleveland National Forest Thursday prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to initiate an inquiry.
“We spoke with a Cal Fire captain who said the skydiving company never interfered with their operations … and were always cooperative,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told City News Service. “He said the skydiving company ceased operations to accommodate the fire crews while they were scooping from the lake.”
Skydive Elsinore operates out of a private dirt field, Skylark Airport, near the southeastern edge of the lake. General Manager Josh Hall told City News Service that pilots flying skydiving students and instructors in Cessna 208 Caravans were “not inhibiting (firefighting aircraft) in any way.”
“If we were inhibiting them, they could shut us down,” Hall said. “But the air boss has been thankful and told us we were easy to work with.”
A community group that runs the social media page “What’s Up Lake Elsinore?” questioned why skydiving was continuing in the face of a now-10,000-acre wildfire burning toward residential areas ringing the city.
A member of the group monitoring air traffic reportedly overheard pilots complaining about having to change flight paths to avoid conflicts with skydiving activity, leading to criticism on the page.
“He heard (negative) radio chatter, but we weren’t even flying at the time,” Hall told CNS.
He said the Skydive Elsinore pilots have been mindful of the FAA’s Temporary Flight Restriction encompassing most of the Cleveland National Forest. The TFR went into effect 12:45 p.m. Wednesday and covers the surface to 10,000, extending beyond the federal preserve to Interstate 15 to the east, the El Cerrito community to the north, the eastern boundary of Mission Viejo to the west and the north end of Lake Elsinore to the south, along with all forest land north of the Ortega (74) Highway.
The lake itself is not covered under the TFR, freeing private aircraft to overfly it if they choose.
Hall said his pilots are staying five miles southeast of the lake.
“If we have to shut down because they extend the TFR, we will shut down, regardless of the financial impact,” he said. “When they had the big fire (south of the Ortega Highway) in the forest last year, the firefighting crews basically came in and took the airport over, filling up with water and fuel.”
He said the airport would “be happy” to assist again if it meant helping fire crews.
According to Gregor, the FAA will continue monitoring operations in and around the TFR and intends to speak with Skydive Elsinore staff to reinforce the need to ensure the safety of firefighting aircraft.
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