The first indication that a plane was down came Saturday afternoon when the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida picked up a signal from an emergency locator beacon transmitting from somewhere in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
The center alerted the California Wing of the Civil Air Patrol. A search plane dispatched from Fallbrook found the wreckage in the mountains nine miles northeast of Borrego Valley Airport.
But when a helicopter dispatched by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department reached the crash site, there was no one to rescue. The pilot and any passengers on the mysterious flight were gone.
On Sunday, the authorities had pieced the story together, mostly.
Lt. Rich Williams of the San Diego Sheriff's Department said the pilot, whose identity has not formally been released, was tracked down at his home in Pacific Palisades. He told investigators that he and his passenger, his brother-in-law, were uninjured and walked away from the wreck.
"They were going to report it to his insurance company," Williams said. "He considered it an incident causing damage to his plane and nothing more."
But some details remained fuzzy.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the crash, released a statement saying the "single-engine Cubcrafters CC11-160 crashed under unknown circumstances immediately after taking off from Borrego Springs. The intended destination was Palm Springs."
But Williams said the pilot told authorities a different story — that he had landed the aircraft in the park about 8:30 a.m. Saturday to visit and crashed taking off. The pilot and his brother-in-law walked away and went home — by what means Williams was not sure.
"We think he hitch-hiked," said said Maj. Dave Kalahar, spokesman for the Civil Air Patrol.
"Let me just say," Kalahar added, "I have never run across a circumstance like this before. He was able to walk away from putting the aircraft down. That we would call a successful outcome."
The FAA, which does not release the identities of people involved in crashes, did disclose the plane's tail number.
It is registered to David S. Segel of Pacific Palisades. Segel could not be reached Sunday.