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The Air Up There Podcast

“We're putting it in the trees.”

Season 2, Episode 14
Published: Friday, June 18, 2021

On a flight back to his home airport in a Cherokee 140, pilot Truman O'Brien ran into engine trouble. FAA air traffic controllers at the Portland, Oregon TRACON were in close communication with the pilot, offering him multiple landing options and working hard to help guide him to safety. But, flying at 8,000 feet, the aircraft lost altitude quickly. Even with top-notch air traffic control services, O'Brien had no choice but to make an emergency landing in the trees, deep in the forest of southwest Washington.

In this episode, we hear from the people on both ends of the transmission — Krissy Lewandowski, Portland TRACON Controller; Patrick Elmore, Portland TRACON Operations Supervisor; and the pilot himself. It's a story that underscores why clear pilot-controller communication is so critical.

The FAA's WINGS program has resources to help general aviation pilots stay proficient and enjoy stress-free flying. You can learn more about WINGS at faasafety.gov/wings.

“We're putting it in the trees.”

“We're putting it in the trees.”

Transcript

Truman O'Brien:
I said, "We're veering to the left here." We had the terrain in sight. And she said, "Do you see any roads or clearings?" And I said, "No ma'am, there's nothing but trees." At that point, I hesitated a moment then I said, "We're putting it in the trees."

Dominique Gebru:
That was the last communication between Portland controller Chrissy Lewandowski and pilot Truman O'Brien on March 30th. The 75 year old retired airline pilot was flying northwest to his home in Vashon, Washington with his business partner, Craig Beles. On their way to Vashon, the aircraft started having engine problems. They were flying at 8,000 feet and the aircraft lost altitude quickly. Even with top-notch air traffic control services, Truman had no choice but to ditch in the trees, deep in the forest of southwest Washington State. It was the 14th time Truman experienced engine troubles but in 59 years of flying, it was his only crash.

Dominique Gebru:
I'm Dominique Gebru and you're listening to The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation and aerospace.

Chris Troxell:
And I'm Chris Troxell. In today's episode, we're shedding light on one pilot's harrowing experience and why solid controller pilot communication is so critical. We'll hear a direct account from the pilot later on, who along with his passenger, miraculously survived the crash and was saved about six hours later.

Dominique Gebru:
Chris, this story gave me the chills the first time I heard it, and I'm really excited we get to share it with our listeners because I think it paints a clear picture of what a huge responsibility it is to be an air traffic controller.

Chris Troxell:
Me too Dominique. I got to interview some of the controllers who were on duty at the Portland TRACON that day, Chrissy and her operation supervisor, Patrick Elmore. Chrissy and Patrick, along with several other colleagues in the control room, helped Truman plot a landing and later helped guide the search and rescue unit to the crash site.

Dominique Gebru:
Let's hear from Chrissy and Patrick.

Chrissy Lewandowski:
To the pilot's credit, he was very calm through the whole thing, super professional, excellent to work with. But he first just notified me they were having some carb ice, requested a descent. I took him from 8,000 to 6,000. The terrain in that area, our minimum safe altitude is 5,700. I talked to a couple other planes, went back to him and asked if that had resolved the issue, and that's when he stated they needed lower. I let him know I could get him to 5,700. He started down and at that point continued descending. They weren't able to hold altitude.

Chrissy Lewandowski:
We offered him Portland. We gave him a turn to get to Portland and that's within seconds, it was evident that that wasn't going to work either so we started … The closest one to him was a private airstrip and so we started calling them, "Hey, this is seven miles to the west of you." And he was very calm, very controlled when he stated they weren't going to make it there. So then he kept descending. We have general MBAs for kind of a broad area, and then we have a map, an emergency vectoring map, that has specific obstructions listed. So the MBA maybe 5,700 feet but that's for something within … was it 10 miles? I think it's —

Patrick Elmore:
Three miles to 10 miles, yeah.

Chrissy Lewandowski:
Three to 10 miles but the emergency map will say it's actually 2,000 feet is the highest thing right where you are. So we pulled that up and I just started calling out the highest things around him. "There's a mountain off to the right," "There's something high off your left," and just tried to keep him away. When he broke out through the clouds that's when I asked him if he saw a road because that will also work in an emergency, to put an airplane on. And he very matter-of-factly said he wasn't going to. They didn't see a road and that they were going to be in the trees.

Chris Troxell:
Wow, that's so scary. So what did you do at that point? This pilot's not going to make a clean landing at this point; what next?

Patrick Elmore:
Once we found out that he wasn't going to make it, we started using all of the functions of our radar display to determine where the last point that we saw him on radar was, got a lat and long position and started calling local law enforcement, local search and rescue. So, we also have an overlay map that shows all the county lines for the entirety of our airspace, determined which county that we needed to call and we called emergency services and tried to give them the best information that we had so they can get to the area.

Chris Troxell:
I understand this was an eight-hour search. Tell me a little bit about what you were doing during this time.

Patrick Elmore:
So one of the issues as Chrissy described it, was the weather was pretty bad which doesn't help when you have higher terrain with aircraft that are trying to get into a specific area to go and search for a downed aircraft. So, if you can't see the ground from the air, then it's not really a benefit. So, I think a lot of the time had to do with waiting for some of these clouds to burn off a little bit which it finally did.

Patrick Elmore:
One of our functions, we have a video replay system that we can pull up, and we can take that and it sends a link to Google Maps. So we took the last known position of the aircrafts, put it onto Google Maps and then we zoomed in and we're looking for specific road names that were the closest to that point where we had the last target on the screens.

Patrick Elmore:
So, we had some local law enforcement here in Portland that we were communicating with, trying to give them information. They were trying to get an aircraft airborne to try to help look for downed aircraft and eventually, I think it was the U.S. Navy that came from the north, that brought a helicopter in and eventually found them.

Chrissy Lewandowski:
It was my entire shift. The emergency happened within a half an hour of me getting to work that day, and about five minutes before I was getting off shift was when we got the call to say they found them. When we got the initial call they just kind of advised us they found them and there were survivors. I didn't know extent of the injuries at that point, just that they found them and there were survivors, which was such a huge relief to me.

Chrissy Lewandowski:
The entire room was worried. But then by the time I was ready to come to work the next day, it had already been on the news and I mean, amazing that they had the wherewithal to maintain such control of that aircraft and then just get out and walk away. It's awesome.

Chris Troxell:
And so I understand that you had several colleagues helping you out behind the scenes during this incident.

Patrick Elmore:
It was a huge team effort.

Chrissy Lewandowski:
Yeah. Air traffic's a team sport and they did great. We have a couple controllers, one specifically, who are local pilots in the area and their knowledge of roads in that area and small airports are hugely beneficial to have. Even just the moral support of having the rest of the team behind you.

Chris Troxell:
Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share with listeners about this?

Patrick Elmore:
So, we're here to help people be safe in the air, and I want to make sure that if anybody's listening and ever has any reservation about talking with us and receiving services, that's what we do. We're here to help, we're here to provide the best service that we can for the flying public and we want to make sure that they know that that's what we're looking to do and we are more than willing to help anybody out whenever they need it.

Chris Troxell:
Thank you both for the time today.

Patrick Elmore:
Thank you. We appreciate it.

Chris Troxell:
After we finished the interview, we got to chatting with Patrick and Chrissy. They shared a little bit about how the events of that day impacted them personally and thankfully Chrissy started recording again. Controllers are always prepared.

Chrissy Lewandowski:
So I got out immediately after this emergency actually happened. The reason Greg was standing right behind me is because he was actually coming in to relieve me to go on a break anyway. I went for a walk in the sunshine and my dad is a retired controller so I called him to kind of talk it through for a couple of minutes because he's been in this situation as well, and then I came back and this is my job. It's back in professional mode, back working. There's more pilots that may need our help and the weather is bad and we got to get in there and do our part so you just kind of hold it to the side and back to professional mode and keep going.

Patrick Elmore:
Nobody wants to be involved in a situation like this, right? It sounds like a good story now that we're talking about it in hindsight but that entire shift, there was just kind of a looming cloud over all of our operation because we have this aircraft that … We're the last ones, Chrissy is the last one to talk to them and we don't know what's going on with them for pretty much the entire shift. It is something that we have to be concerned with on a daily basis. It doesn't happen often at all but when it does, it's not a good feeling that's for sure.

Chris Troxell:
Chrissy and Patrick are extremely good at their jobs and it was heart-wrenching to hear just how much Truman's crash weighed on them both while they waited to hear the news about the search and rescue.

Dominique Gebru:
Absolutely. And fortunately, this story does have a happy ending. As Patrick helped the Navy narrow their search, Truman and Craig stayed calm and prepared themselves to stay at the crash site overnight if necessary. Thankfully, they were both rescued that same night and as luck would have it, Truman agreed to join us on our show today so listeners can hear straight from him what really happened.

Chris Troxell:
Yes. He was eager to share his story. Truman really wanted to make sure that other GA pilots out there understand just how critical it is to keep a clear line of communication open with the controllers on the ground.

Dominique Gebru:
Now let's go to our colleague, Jim Tise, who interviewed Truman about his harrowing experience — one where he and Craig demonstrated skill and perseverance.

Jim Tise:
Man, I can't imagine any pilot better prepared for this. I mean, you've been flying forever, you're a commercial airline pilot, you've been through 14, like you said, total or partial engine failures.

Truman O'Brien:
Yeah.

Jim Tise:
Where did you take off from, where were you headed? And tell us how events transpired.

Truman O'Brien:
Okay. Well, my LLC partner, we had a PA-28, the one that crashed, and a PA-32 Cherokee Six and we were taking the PA-32 down to Bend, Oregon, to be painted. And so my partner, Craig, flew the PA-28 down to Bend and I flew the PA-32, and once we got to Bend, then we both got back in the PA-28 and flew back to Vashon Island, which is our home airport.

Truman O'Brien:
On the way down, the ceiling was a little bit lower than was forecast to be so we ended up going VFR down through the Columbia Gorge, and so on the return flight I said, "Well, let's go ahead and just pick up on IFR clearance, we'll pop up to 8,000."

Truman O'Brien:
We were at 8,000 feet in IMC, suddenly the airplane … There was strong vibration in the airplane. It wasn't like an engine missing, it was a very unusual sensation. I've had gear doors hanging open or other parts loose on an airplane that made the airplane vibrate, and that's really what it felt like. And I said to Craig, I said, "Boy that's odd. Gosh, it can't be airframe icing." I mean, there was just no way but I looked at the outside air temperature probe and of course there was no ice, and Craig said, "Well, how about carb ice?" It was pretty cold. I turned on the carburetor heat and then left it on for a few seconds and then turned it back off and then it became obvious, it was the engine that was causing the vibration.

Truman O'Brien:
At that point, not knowing for sure, I asked ATC for 6,000 thinking, well okay, if it is carburetor ice, again, which I doubted, maybe it'll to improve if we get lower altitude. So we did that and of course, as we began our descent, the roughness just continued to get worse and worse and worse. It did not improve at all.

Jim Tise:
Was there ever a point, maybe you're thinking, "We're in real trouble here."

Truman O'Brien:
Yeah. Yeah, during the descent, when the engine continued to get worse, even before we got to 6,000, I knew that this engine was not going to improve and so I called ATC and said that we'd like to divert to the nearest airport. She came back and said, "Would you like to go to Portland?" And I said, "No ma'am, we need the nearest airport." At that point she said, "Well, I have a hard surface at 12 nautical miles or a grass strip at eight nautical miles." And I said, "We'll take the grass," because I wanted to get down as quickly as we could.

Jim Tise:
How would you describe the assistance you were receiving from the controller?

Truman O'Brien:
Oh, superb. Absolutely suburb. Very calm, very professional. Well, one thing that I found humorous later, as we continued to descend and we obviously could not maintain altitude, and so as we slowed, of course I slowed to best glide and continued coming down and pretty soon she said, "Well, the minimum altitude out there, I think it's 4,500 feet." And that kind of tickled me. I said, "Well ma'am, we don't have much choice. We're coming on down." And then very shortly after that she said, "I'm getting a terrain alert on you now." And of course our GPS was lit up bright red at that point as well.

Truman O'Brien:
Just as she said that we began to break out of the overcast. Indeed we could see terrain up ahead but a ways ahead. It wasn't eminent, that we were going to strike the terrain or anything. As we cleared the hill there and I saw this big, broad valley ahead of us, I said, "We're veering to the left here." We had the terrain in sight and we're veering to the south. She said, "Do you see any roads or clearings?" And I said, "No ma'am, there's nothing but trees." And I said, at that point, I hesitated a moment, then I said, "We're putting it in the trees." And that was the last transmission between the two of us.

Jim Tise:
This is a pretty singular experience. Describe putting it in the trees then. Describe the sound, what it felt like, what you're seeing, what you're smelling —

Truman O'Brien:
Well, let me tell you this first. As we broke out into this valley and there was nothing but trees, there was one thin little white line that was a logging road. It was covered in snow, and I saw that logging road and I thought about it for a moment and I thought, "No, I absolutely do not want to go for that," because those roads are usually very narrow and if we had gone for that, I was afraid that we might take the wings off at the tops of the trees and then we'd have a hundred feet of free fall to the road and I thought, "I do not want to do that." And the forest was so dense that even though I wanted to land in dense trees, I thought, "If I put this airplane into that forest, they will never find us because it's just so dense."

Truman O'Brien:
And at that point I looked over my left shoulder and I saw a clearing and I thought, "Well, at least if I can get close to that clearing …" And by the way, in the Pacific Northwest, you do not want to try and land in a clearing. In the Pacific Northwest, the only reason there's going to be a clearing is because it's been clear-cut or because it's a bog and trees can't grow there. In either case, it's absolutely not a suitable place to try and land an airplane but I thought, "Well, at least if we get close to that clearing, someone might be able to find us."

Truman O'Brien:
As we approached the tree tops, I continued to slow and I went to full flaps. I held off on the flaps until there was … absolutely the last moment. Then I went to full flaps and slowed the airplane to its slowest possible speed, keeping it flying. I maintained control of the aircraft throughout. Just before we went into the treetops, my partner very calmly said, "Nose up." And I was very impressed and of course I already had the nose up but anyway, we flew into the tree tops.

Jim Tise:
So, you thought, even as you were going in the canopies, you still felt you could —

Truman O'Brien:
I was in control. Absolutely.

Jim Tise:
You're in control.

Truman O'Brien:
Absolutely. If you're flying at minimum controllable airspeed, you've got perfect control of the airplane. Continue flying the darn thing as long as you possibly can. At no point did I ever give up. You have to fly the airplane as long as you can fly the airplane, period. That's my best advice.

Truman O'Brien:
The airplane began to decelerate of course and at that point, it's kind of like being in a cement mixer full of rocks. We were really getting pounded. Very loud noise of course with all the branches breaking and the airplane hitting the trees and then at the last moment I did see the ground coming up and we went straight down into the ground. We hit nose first and then we flopped over onto our back so that there were … We're hanging in our harnesses upside down.

Jim Tise:
Wow, okay. I need to take a breath. Harrowing. At any point did it occur to you that this might be it, we're goners?

Truman O'Brien:
No. No, not at all. Never. Someone asked, "Gosh, when you came into that valley and all you saw were trees, weren't you frightened?" And I said, "You know what, it wasn't fear that I felt, it was disappointment." I was really disappointed that there was no place to put the airplane and I looked back on it later and I thought, "Yeah, that was the feeling." It was like, "Well crap, there's nowhere to go."

Chris Troxell:
Amazingly, they suffered only a few scrapes and bruises after being throttled by the trees.

Dominique Gebru:
Incredible.

Chris Troxell:
The two managed to unlatch their harnesses, fell into the wreckage below and crawled through the damp dirt and snow into the cold wilderness. They went straight into survival mode. Both fuel tanks of the plane had ruptured but fortunately there was no fire.

Jim Tise:
At this point are you thinking, "Gosh, I hope the controllers are tracking us, knew where we …" I mean were you thinking about that or —

Truman O'Brien:
The first thing we did, is Craig pulled out his cell phone and then I … My cell phone did come out of this little case and I had to dig around in the wreckage to find mine, and then I had to find my glasses so I could see my phone but I did find them and they weren't even bent, surprisingly. But I found my glasses and my phone and neither of us had cell service.

Truman O'Brien:
We really didn't think about the controllers. We thought about our families and thought, "Oh my gosh, there's no way for us to get word to them that we're okay." So, that was the most disturbing part of the whole thing actually, was not being able to tell someone where we were. I also did have a handheld VHF radio and I dug around in the wreckage and found that. Unfortunately, I had charged it the night before and I don't know if I didn't get it plugged in correctly or what, but the battery was very weak. It was not transmitting I'm sure but it was at that point that Craig did a little reconnoiter around the airplane while I'm trying to make contact with the radio.

Truman O'Brien:
While he's walking around, I'm looking at the airplane going, "You know, our ELT antenna's pointing at the ground and surrounded by vegetation and also I'm not hearing it." So the ELT did not go off so I reached in to the instrument panel and turn the ELT on and then I could hear it on the handheld radio but by the time Craig got back, I said, "Craig, we need to get that ELT out of the airplane. They're not going to be able to hear it if it's down here in the vegetation like this."

Truman O'Brien:
Craig is a little bit lighter weight than I am so he climbed back up into the empennage and got the ELT loose and took it down and then we installed the antenna, the separate little mobile antenna that's always attached to the outside, and deployed the antenna and turned it on. While we're doing that, Craig is reading the directions on the ELT and it says, "In cold weather, put the ELT in your jacket to preserve the batteries." And so Craig opened his jacket, put it in and stuck the antenna up again. Looked like a Martian walking around with this antenna sticking up out of his jacket.

Truman O'Brien:
But then he hiked over … We were right next to a small clearing and a little stream by the way, it was quite lovely. He walked over to the little clearing there and climbed up on a stack of logs so that he'd get the ELT up in the air. Of course, this was right away, so thinking back, there was nobody looking within 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes of us being on the ground.

Jim Tise:
Yeah, yeah.

Truman O'Brien:
But anyway, we did that. And well we were thinking, maybe an aircraft flying over might pick it up.

Dominique Gebru:
Okay, so this is where the story gets even more wild. Truman figured they could be stuck in the woods for a while so he removed the plane's seats and cut off the covers to use as a sort of makeshift coat. It was 40 degrees out there and they needed a way to keep warm. They also knew that they would need to get a signal to the search team but they didn't have any matches or a lighter to start a fire.

Dominique Gebru:
Get this, they removed the plane's battery, took some wiring from the instrument panel, and sparked some fuel soaked paper and wet twigs, to light a smoky fire a safe distance from the crash site. That fire ultimately helped the search team find them. Talk about quick thinking on your feet.

Chris Troxell:
Seriously.

Jim Tise:
So who showed up?

Truman O'Brien:
It was the Navy but before that, at one point, probably around six o'clock, six thirty, somewhere in there, we heard a motor running and at first I said, "Is that a chainsaw we're hearing?" And then we both listened and listened. I said, "No, that's not a chainsaw, it's a drone." And we could hear a drone going back and forth to the north and east of us. And indeed, the Clark County Search and Rescue had deployed a drone looking for us and in fact, that was their first official use of that drone in a search.

Truman O'Brien:
They were following the radar track and of course we'd done a 180 so we were about three miles off of where they were but they did report that they saw our smoke, so that was a benefit.

Jim Tise:
Was it the smoke that finally —

Truman O'Brien:
No, it was the ELT. At about, I'm guessing eight o'clock, it was still light, not bright light but still light, we began hearing a helicopter. We could tell that they were searching and so Craig went out into the clearing with the ELT, got up on a pile of logs so to get the ELT up in the air.

Truman O'Brien:
Now here's the part that's very interesting. Craig and I both work with our community emergency response team here on Vashon Island and Craig, at the last moment, threw a jacket into the airplane. Well, it happened to be his cert jacket, has the high-vis tape on it and the bright greenish yellow typical emergency kind of garb. He had that jacket on so when we stepped out into that clearing, the helicopter appeared just over the trees, just a little bit away from us but we both shined our flashlights. They kind of hovered slowly and went by so we thought, "Okay, they see us." And then they turned and went away and so we thought, "Well, okay that's interesting." But they were gone for a good half an hour or more.

Jim Tise:
Did you think maybe somehow they hadn't seen you?

Truman O'Brien:
Well, we just didn't know. We couldn't figure out why they had left. "Here we are." But they went ahead and left. When they left I said, "Well Craig, we might as well go ahead and keep setting up our camp." So we got our chairs over, arranged and away from the wreckage a little bit and got our blankets out and within about half an hour or 40 minutes, the helicopter came back but anyway, I came out into the clearing and this time, I grabbed the handheld again and by now it's starting to get dark and I shined the flashlight actually on Craig, so that he illuminated with that reflective jacket and Craig shined his flashlight at the helicopter.

Truman O'Brien:
And I got on the handheld and I just said, "Search and Rescue, this is 6-5-5-Lima. We're both okay, we're unhurt and we're prepared to spend the night. Go home and come back in the morning when it's safe to pick us up." And I did not know if they had heard me or not but as soon as I said that, the helicopter turned and left so I thought, "Well okay, they must've heard us and they know we're okay so we're good to go."

Truman O'Brien:
So we'd go back to setting up camp and about 15 minutes later, the helicopter's back. At this time I had that big piece of reflective material and I flashed that at them and I shined my flashlight on Craig and this time they hovered right over the top of us with a big spotlight on us. When they hovered there for so long I said, "Craig, I think they're going to pick us up now. We better get over to that bigger clearing where they can get to us." We went and hiked. Craig had already done his little reconnoiter so he knew where that bigger clearing was and so I followed him and we went through there. It was now full dark. I mean it was very dark. We got to the bigger clearing; that helicopter came over and was hovering right over the big clearing. They saw where we were going. We flashed our flashlights at them so they could see us moving in that direction.

Chris Troxell:
Truman and Craig fought through the heavy breeze from the helicopter as two Navy Search and Rescue officials dropped down to meet them. The chopper flew away for a few moments to cut down on the noise while the officials questioned the two and examined them for injuries.

Truman O'Brien:
These two young men were absolutely top notch by the way. They said, "Well, are you guys ready to go home?" And we said, "Sure." And so they brought the helicopter back over, hovering, dropped the cables down. They said, "Well, we have a harness here for one. Would one of you like to ride up in the litter?" And we both said, "No." And I said, "Oh all right, I'll ride the litter." So I climbed on the litter and they got me all strapped in. Boy, Craig was gone like a rocket out of there, they just zoomed him off the ground. And about five seconds later — zoom — up I went. We were up into the helicopter and off we went.

Chris Troxell:
Wow, that's an amazing story.

Dominique Gebru:
Chris, I know our listeners can't see me through the podcast so I just have to say it. My jaw is on the floor.

Chris Troxell:
Pretty incredible isn't it? The FAA has so much pride in its people, and stories like this really help to shine a light on how critical the work is. This is a story of a truly harrowing emergency flight with the best possible outcome — all made possible through continuous and effective communication among the pilot, air traffic control, and search team. We know there are a lot of folks out there who may be interested in a career in air traffic control. We're working on an upcoming episode about how to become an FAA controller so keep an eye out on this feed.

Dominique Gebru:
I'm excited for that episode to air later this summer. And for any GA pilots out there listening, we just want to remind you about the FAA's WINGS program. That's a pilot proficiency program run by the FAA's Safety Team and it exists specifically to help pilots stay proficient and enjoy stress-free flying. You can learn more about WINGS on faasafety.gov/wings and we'll link that in today's show notes.

Dominique Gebru:
The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you liked today's episode, remember to subscribe and share it with someone else. You can also find the FAA on social media. We're @FAA on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn and @FAANews on Twitter and YouTube.

Chris Troxell:
Thanks for listening.