Thrill-seeking pilot says ocean crash he filmed was no stunt

Ocean plane crash
A Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew rescues two people after their plane went down near Half Moon Bay, Calif.
(U.S. Coast Guard via Associated Press)

The pilot of a small plane that went down in the waters off Northern California is a self-professed thrill-seeker whose stunts have sometimes gotten him in trouble with authorities.

David Lesh and the woman who was his passenger spent about half an hour in the water Tuesday after the single-engine Cessna went down in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Lesh used his water-resistant cellphone to record himself standing on the wing and then he and his friend in the water.

The plane sank in under a minute.

“There she goes!” Lesh says in one video as the tail bobs in the water.

The video and Lesh’s reputation for trying to grab attention led to online speculation that the landing was staged.


Lesh said he recently bought the plane for more than $200,000 and spent about $40,000 on upgrades, taking out a loan to pay for the aircraft.

Anyone who believed he would spend so much money on a plane only to sink it must have “lost their mind,” Lesh told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

He also said he had airplane insurance.

Lesh, 34, is a globe-trotting skier and the founder of Colorado-based outerwear company Virtika.

He has gotten into a few scrapes previously while making videos.

Lesh was arrested by police in Boulder, Colo., in 2014 on suspicion of arson after he burned shopping carts while producing a video for his company. He pleaded guilty to criminal mischief.

That same year, the Colorado Division of Wildlife ticketed Lesh for harassment of wildlife after reports that he was chasing a moose — in a car and on foot — while trying to take a video, San Francisco Bay Area television station KTVU reported.

Lesh said his plan on Tuesday was for friends in a second plane to photograph the first real trip of his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza 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.

“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, which was 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 chilly 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.

They were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Videos show a helicopter hoisting the soaked Lesh and his passenger out of the water.


On Wednesday, Lesh blamed bad gasoline for the malfunction, saying he had siphoned particulate matter out of the gas but thought he didn’t get all of it.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.

Lesh said he planned to leave Friday on a cross-country flight to deliver his other plane to a buyer on the East Coast. He said he wasn’t worried about the trip.

“I’ll always fly,” he said.