Three people are dead after a single-engine private aircraft heading for Santa Barbara Airport crashed into a remote part of the San Rafael Wilderness on Wednesday, killing all aboard.

Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Dept. spokesman Chris Pappas said Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue (SAR) coordinators received reports at around 10 p.m. Wednesday that an emergency locator transmission – used to indicate the position of an aircraft in distress – had activated somewhere in the county. They were also informed that a plane en route from Bakersfield to Santa Barbara that had departed at 9:30 p.m. was overdue for its scheduled arrival time, Pappas said.

At about 9 a.m. Thursday, the Sheriff’s Dept. Aviation Bureau was informed that a civil air patrol had spotted what appeared to be the wreckage of a small plane in the Big Pine Mountain area of the San Rafael Wilderness, approximately 17 miles north of Santa Barbara.

Using a helicopter provided by the Aviation Bureau, SAR personnel dispatched to the scene were able to determine that the downed plane was the same one that had gone missing on its way to Santa Barbara. With considerable difficulty, Pappas said, SAR workers supported by the terrain-clearing work of the Los Padres Hotshots were able to extract the bodies of the plane’s three occupants from the wreckage.

“This effort was really hampered by the treacherous terrain and the heavily wooded area,” Pappas said.

Pappas said the combined efforts of SAR, Aviation Bureau and Los Padres Hotshots personnel helped make the recovery a successful one.

“It was a very challenging recovery,” Pappas said. “The Search and Rescue personnel really can’t be given enough credit.”

The recovered bodies will now be turned over to the coroner’s office, Pappas said, where they will be identified and the next of kin will be notified. Until then, any information about the victims is being withheld.

The investigation regarding the cause of the crash is being handled by the National Transportation Safety Board, Pappas said. He said it is uncertain at this point how long the investigation will take.