Bodies of Santa Rosa couple in Sierra plane crash found

The cockpit where the couple was found was encased in six to seven feet of icy, hard-packed snow. Federal investigators are looking in to the cause of the crash.|

The bodies of Brenda and Mark Richard, the Santa Rosa couple whose single-engine airplane went missing last month in the Sierra Nevada, have been found, Sierra County sheriff’s officials said Friday.

Sheriff Tim Standley said a recreational snowmobiler found a piece of the plane’s tail in the snow on Tuesday. Authorities confirmed the discovery early Wednesday and on Thursday found the bodies in the separated cockpit buried in 6 to 7 feet of snow.

Officials said the couple’s family has been notified of the discovery, in a remote area east of Yuba Pass in Sierra County.

“Our hearts go out to the Richards, to their friends who have called for information, to the family that have called in,” Standley said. “It’s a great tragedy.”

Undersheriff Robert Yegge said an autopsy to determine cause of death is underway.

The couple flew out of Truckee Tahoe Airport on April 17 headed for Petaluma. At the time of their takeoff around 4 p.m., the temperature was 41 degrees with overcast skies and wind gusts exceeding 20 mph. A friend of the couple last month described Brenda Richard, 53, as a good pilot familiar with flying in the mountains.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating and is expected to issue a finding on a preliminary cause of the crash in seven to 10 days, spokesman Eric Weiss said.

The couple were in their white and blue single-engine Socata TB-20 Trinidad and were thought to have crashed in a 400-square-mile stretch of rugged backcountry 18 miles northwest of Truckee. The general location of the plane was determined by radar and cellphone data. On April 23, after six days of unsuccessfully scouring the rough terrain, a search effort was called off.

Standley said it appears the plane struck a tree and split apart. He said he believes centrifugal force caused by the impact flung the cockpit and engine deep into powdery snow. Subsequent snowstorms encased the cockpit in icy, hard-packed snow, he said.

The tail portion of the plane that was found by the snowmobiler was located under a thick tree canopy, he said.

The area had been previously surveyed by rescue aircraft, but the wreckage would not have been visible because of the tree canopy, Standley said.

After the Sheriff’s Office received the report of the wreckage, Standley organized a party to search for the Richards. Standley said the team included those who had previously spent days last month searching for the plane.

“It just eats them up that there’s someone out there,” Standley said.

The team, which included snowmobiles and specially equipped all-terrain vehicles, went out in snowy weather Tuesday night. They found the plane by 2:30 a.m. Wednesday but could not immediately find the cockpit, officials said.

On Thursday morning, a team went out with shovels to dig in the snow. They found the cockpit and the deceased couple inside. Local investigators and federal agencies confirmed the bodies were that of Brenda, 53, and Mark, 54.

The Richards have ?four adult daughters, Lauren, Madeline, Ashley and Danielle, and a young grandchild, according to neighbors in Santa Rosa.

NTSB investigators may or may not visit the site. They will look at a variety of factors in their investigation, including electronic devices, navigational records and the condition of the plane.

“Anything that could paint a portrait of the last moments of the flight,” Weiss said.

Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213.

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