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Local News

Birch Family Grateful for Support as It Grapples with Loss

Patriarch put safety first as a pilot, which makes absence of crash clues that much more frustrating

The Santa Barbara community was hit hard by the news that orthopedic surgeon Stephen Birch had died Sunday when his plane crashed in the ocean off El Capitan State Beach, but it left his family incredulous. The 61-year-old pilot had nearly three decades of flying experience and was known for his methodical approach to flight safety, family members said.

“We still don’t know what went wrong,” Birch’s son, Scott, told Noozhawk on Wednesday. “We’re pretty sure it was mechanical or health related. If there was something he could’ve done, he would’ve done it.”

But when Birch’s single-engine plane disappeared from radar in weather conditions that were nearly perfect, search teams were unable to find many clues as to what happened to the pilot and his aircraft.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team suspended their search late Monday afternoon. Scott Birch said that’s when the news started to become real.

“That was one of the rougher times,” he said. “It kind of continues to sink in ... We’re still in denial.”

The family has hired a private firm to conduct a sonar search for the fuselage, and anything they find would help with closure, Scott Birch said.

“We’re still working,” he said. “We’re not giving up yet.”

The second of Birch’s three sons, Scott Birch said his mother, Alice, and the family are grateful for the outpouring of community support. “That’s been great,” he said. “It’s still tough, though.”

Precaution is mandatory with aggressive flying, he said, adding that his father has “always been the kinda guy where safety comes first.”

According to fellow pilot Jim Knight, the area in which Birch was last seen flying is called the West Practice Area, a region located just south of the flight path toward the runway at Santa Barbara Airport. Pilots go out there to practice their maneuvers or refresh their skills.

“There could be two, maybe three pilots out there,” said Knight, who often saw and heard Birch’s distinctive Extra 300 aerobatic aircraft. “But it’s not typically a crowded place.”

Birch’s plane was a high-performance aircraft with sensitive controls, made for tight turns and acrobatic aerial maneuvers, Knight said. Pilots who fly that plane must have advanced flying skills, he added.

“My dad was the best pilot I’ve ever known,” said Scott Birch. Flying has always been a large part of the Birch family, he said, and his father loved doing that more than anything.

Scott Birch said the family had received numerous reports of multiple planes flying in the area in similar aircraft. He said his dad had gone out alone, however, and that the area was practice airspace for that kind of aerobatic flying.

Upon learning of his accident, many in the community were stunned, then offered their best wishes and sympathies to the family of the popular and personable physician and partner in Peus Smith Birch Kahmann & Gallivan, 2324 Bath St.

“We’ve known Steve and Alice, both exceptional people, for about 25 years,” said Martha Lannan. “Steve was a warm, caring and gifted guy with a quiet manner and rare depth of character. A committed and devoted dad and husband, he also generously gave of himself to untold numbers of others in the community.

“And I suspect he’ll manage to enjoy and share many, many more beautiful sunsets — just from a different perspective.”

A memorial for Birch is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 21 E. Constance Ave. Click here for a related article.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and staff writer Sonia Fernandez at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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