VANCOUVER, Wash. (KOIN) — When the single-engine plane Truman and Craig were flying over Southwest Washington started to seize up, they knew their chances of survival were slim.
Truman O’Brien — a certified flight instructor and pilot with 20,000 hours of commercial flight under his belt — flew out of Bend in the Piper Cherokee 140 with Craig Beles co-piloting. It was Monday afternoon and the two men were heading for Tacoma.
Craig said the weather was fair, sunny with some wind, but they flew into a cloud bank as they drew close to the Columbia River Gorge. The plane’s engine started to run rough a few minutes later 8,000 feet above the ground.
Truman contacted air traffic control and was granted permission to drop altitude to 6,000 feet in search of warmer air currents. But that didn’t help.
“The engine starts running worse, losing power. It felt like we were on three cylinders,” Craig recalled. Suddenly, the propellers stopped working properly and the plane was gliding. “The problem is we are losing altitude and we can’t see anything, which is kind of terrifying. We were talking to air traffic control and we were saying ‘we got a real problem. It’s basically a mayday situation.'”
Air traffic control told the pilots to head for the closest airport but the plane’s instruments were blaring out warnings about the ground getting closer and closer. They were still unable to see anything out the windshield.
Then the plane broke out of the clouds and Truman immediately started looking for a safe place to land — but there wasn’t one. So the seasoned pilot decided on the next-best option: flattening out the aircraft and landing in the treetops. The men braced themselves as the plane made contact with the forest, eventually coming to a stop on its nose.
“Truman looks at me and he goes ‘are you okay?’ and I go ‘are you okay?’ and it turns out, miraculously, we are okay through the incredible skill of my instructor, friend and co-owner of the plane,” Craig said.
Truman and Craig worked their way out of their seatbelts and dropped onto the plane’s ceiling and crawled away from the plane which was leaking fuel. They had landed near the border of Clark and Skamania counties. Their cellphones had no service and something was wrong with the plane’s emergency beacon which is normally triggered in the event of a crash. They tried starting a fire but it didn’t develop.
Search and rescue crews — including a team from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island — were mobilized when the plane lost contact with air traffic control. The NAS team used a helicopter to follow the plane’s flight path and eventually spotted the smoke from the pilots’ failed fire.
Christopher Harris, a SAR member with Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, said they followed a path of chopped treetops where the plane had passed through and found the fuselage stuck in the trees.
“We rigged up to send a couple of our crewmen down at that point. We saw two guys about a few hundred feet away in an opening in a field and they started flashing a flashlight at us,” said Harris. “As the crew chief, I hoisted out both our flight paramedics and our rescue technicians onto the ground and assessed the two gentlemen.”
Craig and Truman escaped the crash with nothing more than some minor cuts to their foreheads and legs. Harris said the pilots’ conditions were “very astonishing for us.”
Craig commended the efforts of the search and rescue crew as “unbelievable,” saying the EMTs helped them up into the helicopter and to safety. “The odds were not in favor of us surviving,” he said. “We were a couple of happy guys.”
Harris said the real thanks should go to the volunteer search and rescue crews who were on the ground.
Despite their harrowing experience, Craig said he and Truman both love flying and the crash won’t stop them from doing what they love.