Pilot used treetops to survive crash in Washington forest

Quick thinking, and 60 years of flight experience, left him and his flying buddy virtually unscathed.

By Jessica Prokop / The Columbian

Truman O’Brien and Craig Beles were about 1½ hours into their flight and 8,000 feet up Monday afternoon when their small plane started to lose power in the skies near Yacolt.

O’Brien, a 75-year-old retired airline pilot, said he tried to solve the issue, but the rough-running engine got so bad that he couldn’t maintain altitude. They began descending through the clouds.

“I looked for a space that was heavily forested to put it into the tops of smaller trees…it slows the plane down, and you don’t get that sudden de-acceleration,” O’Brien told The Columbian in a phone interview Tuesday.

“I picked a spot near a clearing so if we came out OK, rescue could get to us,” he said.

O’Brien’s quick thinking and 60 years of flight experience left him and his 71-year-old flying buddy virtually unscathed.

The Piper PA-32 Saratoga ultimately came to rest upside down in a heavily wooded area near Gumboot Mountain on the Clark-Skamania county line.

O’Brien said the two were hanging in their straps. They freed themselves, climbed out of the plane and checked themselves over for injuries. He only suffered a bump on his forehead and a scrape; Beles was fine, he said.

The Piper was equipped with an emergency locator transmitter that’s supposed to activate in a crash, but the relatively gradual landing wasn’t enough to set it off, O’Brien said.

He knew they needed to get the transmitter going, so they climbed up into the fuselage, removed the device and installed a small, mobile antenna to activate it.

Then, the two friends removed the plane’s seats and made themselves comfortable, sitting around a small fire they built using the plane’s battery and papers, and waited for rescuers. O’Brien said it was too wet to get much of a blaze going, but it produced a lot of smoke — which helped lead the rescuers to them.

Multi-agency search

O’Brien said the two were returning to their homes in Vashon from Bend, Oregon, when the crash occurred. They had dropped off another aircraft in Bend to have some work done, he said.

They were headed to the Tacoma Narrows Airport near Gig Harbor, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation, when O’Brien radioed air traffic control in Portland to report the rough-running engine. Contact was lost at 3:47 p.m., but the last known radar contact gave crews a target search location.

Clark County sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the area and set up a command post at the Sunset Falls Campground. Search and rescue coordinators requested assistance from the sheriff’s office Civilian Search and Rescue Team, the Volcano Rescue Team, and a helicopter out of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station

Deputies and sheriff’s office search and rescue members used unmanned aircraft systems to search while waiting for the helicopter to arrive. Other search and rescue members conducted ground searches of the area.

The helicopter arrived about 8:30 p.m., and by 9:10 p.m., radio traffic indicated it had located the crash site, according to a news release from the sheriff’s office.

A crew member was lowered to the crash site, and then O’Brien and Beles were hoisted up and transported to Yacolt Primary School.

Both were taken to the North Country EMS station in Yacolt where they were evaluated and given food and water. The two were then taken to the sheriff’s office West Precinct where they were picked up by a family member, the agency said.

The whole experience was “pretty straightforward,” O’Brien said, speaking calmly and matter-of-factly Tuesday morning as he sat across from Beles. He said the two had a good night’s sleep and were getting ready to head home.

“When you have 19,000 hours of flight time, you don’t get too excited,” O’Brien said. “There was not a lot running through my head, other than running procedures.”

He started flying at 16 years old and was a pilot for Alaska Airlines for nearly 20 years, starting out with Boeing 727s and then 737s.

O’Brien has never been in a crash before, he said, but he has a lot of training on how to handle that kind of emergency.

“When the engine goes rough, you got it put it somewhere,” he said.

There is no indication so far what caused the engine to lose power, he said. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. The plane is totaled and will be retrieved from the crash site, he said.

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