Former sheriff missing

Plane pieces found during Alaska search for Ed Burch


— The Coast Guard in Juneau, Alaska, suspended its search Sunday morning for a missing light plane in which former Routt County Sheriff Ed Burch was a passenger. The plane, piloted by another Juneau man, has been missing since Dec. 27, and there are signs it may have gone down in the ocean.

The two men left Juneau Wednesday in a red Bellanca Scout for a 20-minute flight to Young Bay on Admiralty Island, just west of Douglas Island. They never returned. The plane was owned by the pilot, Steve Zeckser, 51. Burch, a certified flight instructor, was giving Zeckser his biennial flight review.

Searchers found two aircraft tires floating about a mile apart in the ocean between Douglas and Admiralty islands on Dec. 29. The Juneau Daily News reported that an airplane mechanic who worked on Zeckser's Bellanca Scout said the tires belonged to the single-engine plane. The only other sign of the missing aircraft was a piece of material that could have come from an airplane wing.

Burch, 63, was elected Routt County sheriff in 1990 and served one term. He was defeated in his bid for a second term by current Sheriff John Warner in the Republican primary in 1992. After his defeat, Burch took a high-ranking job in the El Paso County sheriff's department.

Routt County Coroner Doug Allen worked with Burch for many years.

"What I liked about Ed Burch was that he was a straight shooter," Allen said. "You knew where he stood. He had unique perspectives on life and was willing to share them with people. He had a saying that he lived by: 'Is it right? Is it fair? Does it need to be done?"

Flying had been a boyhood dream of Burch's. His ambition was to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and fly military aircraft, but when he took the Illinois driver's license test, he discovered that the vision in his right eye was too poor for him to qualify for Annapolis.

Disappointed but still determined to become a pilot, Burch started learning to fly at the age of 16 and, at 19, earned his commercial pilot's license. While in college at Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University) Burch came close to seeking a pilot's job with an airline, but he wound up taking ROTC classes and that led to the first of three tours of duty as an army officer in Vietnam. During his first tour, Burch was one of four American advisors assigned to a Vietnamese infantry battalion.

In 1966, he was severely wounded in battle, and was evacuated by helicopter. Much of his subsequent recovery was spent at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver.

In June 1967, as a captain, Burch returned to Vietnam, where he commanded a parachute infantry unit for the 101st Airborne Division.

Burch retired from the military in 1980 and moved to Routt County with his family, purchasing a 53-acre parcel of land. His first job was training Steamboat Springs police officers and he joined the reserve unit, becoming a full-time officer in 1982.

Subsequently, Burch became undersheriff in the administration of Sheriff Tim Walsh.

In July 1985, Burch left Routt County, about six months after he lost his youngest son in a traffic accident. He returned in 1988 and served 13 months as a road deputy.

Two years later, he successfully ran for sheriff.

The search for Burch and Zeckser, a 21-year employee of the U.S. Forest Service, involved a number of agencies in Alaska, which spent 150 hours looking for the men. Coast Guard searchers were joined by the Civil Air Patrol, Alaska state troopers, Army National Guard, the Forest Service, Coast Guard auxiliary, Juneau Mountain Rescue and friends of the missing men.

In a story published in the Steamboat Pilot in January 1992, Burch said his last remaining dream was to sail his own boat across the Pacific, and if he was not reelected to a second term as sheriff, that would be his pursuit.

In that same newspaper story he related how a friend in the Army had once asked him what single word he would choose as his epitaph.

"I've struggled with whether it would be 'American' or 'soldier,'" Burch said at the time. "I guess it would be 'American.' As people get to know me, I'd like them to know that I'm proud to be an American."


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