In the past week, no news has been as celebrated on Vashon as the fact that Craig Beles and Truman O’Brien are still alive.
Their survival after the crash of their small plane has been the talk of the town, with an outpouring of relief and amazement expressed by islanders on social media and in person, as both men have been spotted working volunteer shifts for VashonBePrepared at the island’s vaccination site.
The duo has also been pursued by a pack of reporters from Seattle and regional media outlets, resulting in news accounts detailing how great piloting, good luck and a swift response by rescue teams all made it possible for the men to walk away from the twisted wreckage of their plane.
As for Beles and O’Brien, both now say how grateful they are for all the love expressed by their friends and families, as well as the heroics of their rescuers.
On Thursday, April 1, the amiable pair of friends — who are well known and beloved on Vashon for their civic engagement and volunteer work — showed up at the Voice of Vashon radio station to tell the story of how their plane had gone down deep inside the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington.
As they sat behind VoV’s console, the only signs of the ordeal on their smiling faces were a small scratch on Beles’ forehead, and deep purple shiners rimming both of O’Brien’s eyes.
Here is the tale they lived to tell.
The morning of Monday, March 29, Beles, age 71, and O’Brien, age 75, took off from Vashon Airport for a quick trip to Bend, Oregon and back.
The pair flew separately, each piloting a different plane — one to be left behind in Bend for a paint job. In a quick turnaround, O’Brien piloted the plane they flew back — a Piper PA28-140, with a 180 horsepower engine, weighing about 2100 pounds fully fueled and loaded.
Their trip back to Vashon proved how aptly Beles and O’Brien had named the company they formed as co-owners of the two planes — Treetop Flyers LLC, chosen originally in a nod to the towering trees that surround Vashon’s tiny airport, and the way pilots have to practically put their wheels on those treetops as they take off.
The name has a whole new meaning now.
On the flight home, at around 3:30 p.m., the engine of their plane began to sputter 8,000 feet above the ground in southwest Washington.
What happened next happened fast. First, O’Brien and Beles went through a checklist of possible actions to right what was wrong with the engine, but nothing worked. It kept cutting out.
O’Brien piloted the plane as it descended through thick clouds. Then, Beles and O’Brien saw the canopy of treetops of the forest on the south side of Mount St. Helens, just below them.
For O’Brien — a certified flight instructor and retired commercial airline pilot for Alaska Airlines — a lifetime of preparedness and experience had prepared him for his next maneuver.
As he looked at the forested terrain beneath him and realized the plane wouldn’t make it to the nearest airport, he decided to do some treetop flying.
Beles described O’Brien’s piloting as masterful, comparing him to the famed pilot “Sully” Sullenberger, who in 2009 sat his United Airlines jetliner down atop the freezing Hudson River, saving all 155 passengers and crew.
“You’ve heard of “Miracle on the Hudson,’” Beles said. “This was the miracle on the side of Mt. St. Helens.”
Putting the plane into a glide, O’Brien steered it away from a clearing that he knew would be full of dangerously tall tree stumps, and toward an adjacent forested area.
Beles described the feeling of being in the shaking plane as it descended at 80 miles per hour, with a “Hazard Terrain” warning flashing on the instrument panel, and an air traffic controller’s voice on the radio telling the pair they couldn’t go any lower.
“The trees start coming up below you, and you’re kind of thinking, well, this could be it — the odds are not in our favor,” he said.
And then, against all those odds, O’Brien somehow entered and then glided down through the treetops, slowing the plane enough so that it finally impacted upside down at the bottom of a stand of trees just adjacent to the stump-filled clearing. The clearing, he had decided, would be a fatal place to land, but a great spot to be rescued from.
For O’Brien, slowing the plane as it came to the ground was the goal.
“I’ve had mountain flying training years ago and I’ve flown in the mountains a lot in little airplanes, and you always think about what are you going to do and how are you going to do it, and all of that just came together,” he said. “But even if you did everything perfectly, which we pretty much did, the outcome is still absolutely not guaranteed.”
Beles described the wild ride through the trees.
“It was like you were in a blender, and you’re wondering, when is that tree limb going to come through the windshield, when is the cockpit going to get crushed, what’s going to happen when we finally get off the tops of the trees and drop down to the ground,” Beles said. “For various reasons, it couldn’t have [turned out] any better.”
Beles’ and O’Brien’s first task, after realizing they were both still alive, was to get out of the plane — which wasn’t easy, given that they were hanging upside down. But after falling face first in the mud as he scrambled free of his seat belt, O’Brien then looked up to see Beles and noticed that not a single hair on his friend’s head was out of place.
“I said, ‘Why does your hair look so good?’” O’Brien said with a laugh.
Other moments of levity came in the aftermath of the crash, they said, as they realized they were deep in the wilderness with no cellphone reception and a hand-held radio that didn’t work either, because of a malfunction with its charger.
The pair joked about how it would be just their luck to survive a plane crash, only to be eaten by bears or blown up in another eruption of Mt. Saint Helens.
But also, as they surveyed the scene, came the immediate and heavy realization that their wives had expected them to be home between 4 and 4:30 p.m. that day.
“The most difficult thing to handle was thinking ‘oh my God, our wives, what is going through their heads?’” said Beles. “We knew they were going to get a phone call and be told that their husbands’ plane went down.”
The pair prepared to hunker down for the night by ripping the airplane seats out of the plane and tearing off their sheepskin covers to use as blankets. Then came another challenge — building a fire without matches or a lighter.
“There was fuel still dripping out of the wing, so I thought, how do you start a fire? O’Brien said.
What Beles and O’Brien did was wrestle the heavy battery out of their upside-down plane, and then rip some wire out from under the instrument panel. After stripping down the wires with O’Brien’s Swiss Army Knife, they sparked a flame and lit their fuel-soaked flight charts on fire atop a pile of brush.
In another “MacGyver” move, Beles and O’Brien took the plane’s emergency locator transmitter (ELT) out of the plane and turned it on — it hadn’t gone off in the crash, perhaps because O’Brien’s crash landing had been so slow and smooth, they said. They attached a portable antenna to the device and stuck it inside Beles’ coat to keep it warm as it did its work — alerting a small army of first responders and rescue teams to their location.
That coat — a last-minute wardrobe choice made by Beles as he left his house on Monday morning — turned out to be a factor in their rescue as well.
Beles — who is known for his sartorial elegance at dress-up occasions on Vashon — had chosen the bright yellow jacket, with fluorescent hazard stripe across it, that he wears when volunteering at Vashon’s vaccination site.
The pair was rescued, well after dark, by a US Navy helicopter that had joined the rescue mission from the Whidbey Island Naval Base. As Beles and O’Brien heard the chopper overhead, O’Brien shined his flashlight on Beles’ coat, sending a beam of light up to the sky like a beacon.
In all, 10 agencies took place in the rescue, Beles and O’Brien said, expressing deep gratitude to all of them. These included the US Navy, The Clark County Sheriff’s Office, Clark County Sheriff’s Office Civilian Search and Rescue Team, Mount St. Helens Volcano Rescue Team, Washington State Emergency Operations Center, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, Department of Emergency Management, Skamania County Sheriff’s Office, US Forest Service – LE Division and North Country EMS.
After being checked out at a small hospital, the pair spent the night in the Scappoose, Oregon home of Lauren Gundlach —who is the daughter of Vashonite Penni Symonds. There, they were welcomed by Lauren, her husband Andrew, and the couple’s four-month-old baby, Shiloh.
“Lauren is a nurse and sensed that I was still somewhat rattled from our experience, so she handed me her four-month-old beautiful baby, knowing her happy, smiling child would gently bring me back to earth,” Beles said.
The next morning, O’Brien and Beles were picked up by their wives, Mary O’Brien and Lynette Beles, and O’Brien’s daughter Molly O’Brien, who drove them back home to Vashon.
The next day, Beles was back at his volunteer station at the vaccination site, wearing his bright yellow jacket, directing traffic to the spot where other islander’s lives were being saved.