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Palm Springs pilot shares difficulties of flying through Banning Pass area after recent Cabazon aircraft collision

As we continue to follow the fatal Cal Fire aircraft collision in Cabazon, we're learning more about the challenges the Banning Pass area poses for pilots.

We spoke to Palm Springs native and Chief Pilot of Soar Air, about the challenges he's faced while flying in the region.

"He's having to use both hands both feet. Talk on the radio, change your frequencies, he has to take his hand off one to do the other. It's a constant dance," says pilot Cheek.

Those are the tasks a helicopter pilot has to perform simultaneously while in the air.

Cheek has lived in Palm Springs for more than two decades and has flown though the Banning Pass about 2,000 times.

That's the area where two Cal Fire helicopters crashed midair Sunday evening, killing two first responders and a pilot.

Cheek tells me when he's navigating the pass area, wind is a major factor.

"Some days you're better off going up, nice and high, trying to stay out of it, but you might be pulled into really strong winds. Some days you want to stay down low, but there's always that surprise, everything's smooth. And just like a roller coaster ride, it can go either up or down," adds Cheek.

Temperatures also add to the unpredictable flight conditions in the pass.

"That time of day the coast is getting cooler, we're still hot. So you're gonna have the air pumping through there. Then you add the fire, which is a massive source of heat," says Cheek.

And the additional water being used for the firefighting efforts also plays a role.

"You've just created almost like a 'Super Tornado.' That the pilot is trying to do his tasks or his mission safely…so he has so many different factors and it's not smooth air. Everything is constantly changing. That's Mother Nature, and then it's bouncing off the sides of those mountains," adds Cheeks.

Helicopter footage from Highland Fire in Beaumont

Cheeks adds that the water load can also offset the helicopter.

"So the pilot's constantly trying to figure out how to slow down that pendulum from swinging out of control, to get it under control," says Cheek.

And this isn't the first Cal Fire helicopter accident in the pass area. A year ago, on September 10 another Cal Fire helicopter crashed in the Banning pass while returning from the Fairview Fire.

Three people including the pilot and two first responders sustained moderate injuries.

That crash was less than ten miles from Sunday's collision in Cabazon.

"I really felt bad for the families and the people involved. But a helicopter is really designed for flying in really inclement weather. It's designed for that. I'm sure the investigations is gonna go through everything and figure out why this actually occurred," says Cheek.

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Bianca Ventura

Bianca Ventura joined KESQ News Channel 3 as a reporter in February 2022.


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