Pilot Still Missing

Investigation Continues Into What Caused Sunday Plane Crash

The Coast Guard is still searching in the ocean off the coast of El Capitan State Beach for evidence to explain the crash of a small plane on the evening of Sunday, April 19.

At 5:28 p.m., the single-engine plane that had been doing aerobatics above the ocean disappeared from radar. While the pilot had not been in contact with air traffic controllers up until the plane’s disappearance, the craft had been tracked on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Santa Barbara Airport air traffic control facility. A Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department helicopter was the first source to spot an indication of a crash: a debris field and an oil slick in the ocean.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department began a search of the area, but broke off its investigation when the Coast Guard took over as dark fell last night. This morning, Coast Guard divers began an above- and below-water search of an ever-growing area. Debris from the crash has already been distributed over seven miles of ocean by the tide.

The pilot-Stephen Birch, orthopedic surgeon and Santa Barbara resident-has yet to be found as of the posting of this story. “He’s a very avid pilot,” said his son, Scott Birch. “He’s been flying for more than 30 years, does aerobatics routinely, once or twice a week.” The crash is bewildering to family and friends of Birch, who know him to be a very adept flyer.

Birch was the only person in the plane at the time of the crash.

The crash is currently being investigated by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board. The crashed plane is a high-performance model known for its aerobatic ability, according the FAA. Birch’s family believes his experience as a pilot makes any case for a mistake in piloting, “hard to believe.”

The Birch family has been working with Sheriff’s and Coast Guard offices to piece together what happened, and would like to ask anyone with an eye-witness account to share their information. The family can be contacted by email at and by phone at (805) 637-2021.

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