Tahoe City pilot’s plane goes down off coast; Search now a recovery effort

Rebecca O’Neil / Sierra Sun

Authorities on Monday said they stopped the search and rescue effort for a Tahoe City woman about 24 hours after her plane was first reported downed off the coast near the Santa Barbara Airport.

The search for pilot Debra Nicholson has now turned into a recovery effort led by a dive team, the Coast Guard said.

According to a press release, authorities stopped the search a day after the Coast Guard located “a debris field and light sheening in the reported vicinity of the downed aircraft,” around two miles off the coast of the Santa Barbara Airport.

The plane was last seen at 7:10 a.m. Sunday.

Petty Officer Richard Brahm said search and rescue efforts are called off for various reasons, including life expectancy on the water, how long a person could reasonably survive in the water and the circumstances by which the person entered the water.

According to Hardy Bullock, director of Aviation and Community Services at the Truckee Tahoe Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office called the airport Sunday morning to confirm that Nicholson’s plane was not in the hangar.

“They wanted to make sure that the subject’s aircraft wasn’t in a hangar here,” Bullock said. “That’s protocol. We conduct a safety search to ensure that the aircraft scheduled to be here has arrived. If it’s not, it could substantiate claims.”

Bullock said the plane nor pilot were found on the premises.

Engaged Community Member

Nicholson was an active community member, and was just appointed to serve on the Airport Community Advisory Team Sept. 23, four days before her plane went down, Bullock said.

“She volunteered her time with the advisory team,” Bullock said. “We were looking forward to working with her.”

According to a letter of intent Nicholson directed to the Truckee Tahoe Airport on July 21, Nicholson has two sons, the youngest of whom just began college.

According to that same letter, Nicholson has been practicing solo estate law in Tahoe City for over 30 years.

Brent Collinson, a Tahoe attorney who specializes in estate planning, said he remembers laughing with Nicholson after a Bar Association-sponsored slalom many years ago.

“The Bar Association used to have a ski day where attorneys got together and skied at a resort,” Collinson said. “We had a slalom race when she was four or five months pregnant and she beat me. Afterwards when we were sitting around, she said, ‘I live in Squaw Valley and ski everyday, so don’t feel bad.’”

Collinson, who is also a pilot, said he was jarred by the news given how qualified Nicholson was as a pilot.

“She had gone beyond the basics of a pilot’s license,” Collinson said. “I know she was instrument rated.”

Loss to Legal Community

Although Nicholson practiced estate law alone, she shared an office with another estate attorney in Tahoe City, Gregg Lien.

Lien said he knew Nicholson for over 40 years.

“I am dumbfounded,” Lien said. “She was a dear friend and colleague.”

Lien said Nicholson had a “whip crack smart mind,” and was well respected by her legal peers.

Lien said he and Nicholson worked for the same firm in the 1980s.

“We have a small legal community in Tahoe,” Lien said. “This is a tremendous loss to our community and group of colleagues.”

“The community is going to miss her,” Collinson said.

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for The Sierra Sun, a sister publication to the Tribune. She can be reached at

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