The sun shone at just the perfect angle, reflecting light that briefly revealed the top of a white Chevy pickup truck beneath brush-covered hillside about 300 feet below Painted Cave Road.
As sheer luck would have it, flying directly over at that moment on July 4 was a Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit on its way back to a hangar at the Santa Ynez Airport, capping off a full morning of monitoring Santa Barbara’s downtown Fourth of July parade and following up on a marijuana eradication call.
What the helicopter uncovered — after pilots directed a sheriff’s deputy on the ground to the wreckage — was the remains of a man who had been missing since March 2012.
“I was looking out and happened to see it,” said crew chief Jon Simon, who scanned the hills above Santa Barbara that afternoon as Deputy Mike Arend piloted Copter 2. “We just happened to be on that portion of the canyon. We’ve flown over that area 100 times and never seen it. It looked like a new vehicle and wasn’t marked.”
By “new,” Simon means one of several cars spotted each year by the air unit, which in the past two years has curtailed its routine patrols due to county budget cuts.
Pilots call a car “new” if it hasn’t been marked by Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue crews with an orange “X” or other symbol to indicate that the vehicle has been previously spotted. That type of wreckage is left alone because most are abandoned or too far below the roadway to retrieve.
Simon estimates that at least a dozen or so vehicles have been located — either ditched stolen vehicles or those not missed by owners — 30 or more years later, most off east or west Camino Cielo roads, Painted Cave Road or Highway 154 in the hills above Santa Barbara.
And those are just the ones veteran pilots know about.
The danger of driving on these winding, barrier-less roads was also evident recently when a bicyclist was injured after crashing 10 to 15 feet over the side of East Camino Cielo Road. A motorcyclist had a similar fate in recent memory, Arend said.
“There are a number of cars over the side all over the county,” said Arend, who is one of three full-time unit pilots familiar with area terrain.
Finding bodies inside vehicles is less common, but it happens often enough that pilots are no longer fazed by the cases, which often involve suicide.
In the most recent discovery, authorities are still investigating a cause of death for pickup truck owner Timothy Goodwin, 55, of Santa Barbara.
Pilots said some of the marked wrecks are used for hoist and rescue training exercises with dummies inside, since it’s not an uncommon emergency scenario.
Before budget cuts and the merger with the Santa Barbara County Fire Unit, the sheriff’s air unit of fewer than 10 crew members performed routine aerial searches for at least two hours a day.
Sgt. Gregg Weitzman said now such searches are relegated to only when a helicopter is already out on unrelated dispatch calls, including grant-funded marijuana flights, search and rescue, narcotics support, medical, and assistance to other agencies and municipalities.
“Because of the county budget cuts, we’ve drastically cut back on flights,” Weitzman said. “We just get lucky sometimes.”
As for whether pilots would spot more abandoned vehicles and the like with more routine patrols, pilots weren’t so sure.
The most recent discovery, however, does show what trained eyes in the skies above Santa Barbara can do.