Pilot David Lesh, a 34-year-old globe-trotting skier and the founder of Colorado-based outerwear company Virtika, had embarked on the flight Tuesday over Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. His plan was for friends in a second plane to photograph the first real trip of his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza propeller plane with views of the coastline and Golden Gate Bridge to complement photos on his Instagram account showing him flying, skiing and snowmobiling worldwide. He had purchased the plane less than three months ago.
The plan was scrapped when the plane lost power while flying at 3,000 feet (915 meters). "I just did everything I could to get the motor going again," Lesh said. "Nothing was working." He reached out to Owen Leipelt, the pilot of the second plane carrying the photographer.
"David radioes to me that he's lost engine power," Leipelt said. "When you hear that, you think, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, what did I just hear, say that again.'" Lesh said his plane "skipped along the water" for a few hundred feet without much of an impact. He and his passenger grabbed window shades and seat cushions to help them float in the water teeming with jellyfish as whales breached the surface nearby.
Leipelt, 20, of San Jose called air traffic control for help and circled over the two people in the water. The Coast Guard dispatched two aircraft, a cutter and a patrol boat. Videos show a helicopter hoisting the soaked Lesh and his passenger out of the water about 20 minutes after the plane went down.
While in the water, Lesh filmed himself and his friend with his water-resistant cellphone as the plane sank in under a minute. "There she goes!" he says in one video as the tail bobs in the water. In the clip, Lesh speculates about its fuel. On Wednesday, he blamed bad gasoline for the malfunction, saying he had siphoned particulate matter out of the gas but thinks he didn't get all of it.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating. Lesh said he bought the plane for more than $200,000 and spent about $40,000 for upgrades. He said he took a loan out to pay for the plane.
Addressing online speculation that he had staged the water landing, Lesh said anyone who believed he would spend so much money on a plane only to sink it must have "lost their mind." Asked for specifics about insurance, Lesh said he had "airplane insurance" and quickly hung up.
Lt. Cmdr. Joshua Murphy said the quick reporting of the incident by Leipelt "greatly aided the Coast Guard's prompt response and ability to save two lives." Luck also helped, Leipelt said. "The seas were very calm, it was daytime," he said.
Lesh said he plans to leave Friday on a cross-country flight to deliver his other plane to a buyer on the East Coast. He said he's not worried about the trip. "I'll always fly," he said.