Surviving the Trees

Down and out in an Alaskan swamp

July 1, 2006

The sudden silence was a relief, after the catastrophic racket I heard as the engine failed. The airplane's engine had seized and the sudden quiet was deafening. Here I was at 1,200 feet in a Piper Tri-Pacer, an aircraft known by pilots for its ability to act as a homesick brick searching for the ground when the engine is off.

I did not have much time to lament the fact that I did not have an engine above a tree-dotted swamp in such an aircraft, for I was quite busy. I was frantically calling, "Mayday" into the lonely silence, with no answer in return. I was far from any civilization in the roadless wilderness. The passenger I had with me had his own unique way of dealing with unusual situations; he started singing as the aircraft descended toward an uncertain method of landing. My hands were full as I maneuvered the aircraft. I could only feebly attempt to punch his arm and make my wishes known that I did not want him distracting me with his singing. The song, which I will never forget, was Lucille: "You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille." The propeller was seized into a permanent horizontal position, which fascinated me. The trees rushed up toward me and I was focused beyond belief, the concentration hard upon me to get us in safely. I had already prepared myself for the survival situation I knew we were going to be in.

It was July 10, 1980. I was a young pilot gaining flying experience and had about 500 flight hours. I was ferrying the Tri-Pacer from Kotzebue, Alaska, down to Anchorage, with my friend Jerry, normally a full-day trip. We made stops along the way at the towns of Unalakleet and McGrath for fuel and food. It was during the last leg toward Anchorage, between McGrath and Farewell, that the engine developed problems.

Everything was running smoothly, until the engine suddenly let loose with a grinding, smashing racket. That precipitated my yanking the throttle all the way back to keep the engine from breaking free of the engine mounts. The instrument panel was shaking so badly that it seemed to want to jerk right out of the airplane. As quickly as I yanked the throttle back, the engine choked and the propeller quit moving. This happened so quickly that I imagined that the Tri-Pacer was wrenched around by the sudden stoppage of power — power that just seconds ago amounted to enough juice to keep us flying. I looked down at Earth and saw nothing but trees and swamp, and knew the landing was not going to be a pretty sight. With only seconds to act, I turned the Tri-Pacer one direction, then another, until I found a suitable spot to land. I had no choice; it was trees, or trees.

I found myself aiming between toothpicklike black spruce trees that stood about 30 feet high. The first set of trees that I hit slammed the wings rearward into the fuselage, folding them back like a moth's wings against its body. The wing flaps jammed into the side of the airplane behind me. I distinctly remember hearing eight trees hitting the wings, a sound that I will never forget. The sound cannot be duplicated. Then everything seemed fine until a second set of trees suddenly loomed before me, and here I was in an airplane that had no controls left. The yoke just hung loose in my hands. Although the controls were useless I instinctively pulled back on the yoke in my vain attempt to keep the Tri-Pacer in the air.

The Tri-Pacer's nosewheel, as the airplane was designed, seemed to stick way out ahead of the rest of the aircraft in an arrogant way. As we rode with the aircraft into the second set of trees, the nosewheel grabbed a tree and took a strong hold. This made the rest of the airplane come to a disastrous stop. It twisted the airplane around the trunks of several trees.

This is when life's motion picture turned into a slow-motion parody, making my mind come up with weird notions. I found myself thinking about how slow the whole crash had become. I sat in astonishment as stinky swamp mud splashed me in the face. I wondered where the heck it was coming from. The windscreen was intact, yet brown, watery mud was slapping me in the face as I held on to the useless yoke.

During this whole thought process I realized that the fuselage tubes were flexing and that the windscreen was flexing oppositely. This allowed the mud to come inside and to splash up into my face. The overall sound of crashing the airplane was deafening. I never felt like I was about to die, nor did my life pass before my eyes. I was too busy. My knees, however, betrayed my anxiety by shaking violently.

In the abrupt and great quiet, I realized that we needed to get out of the wreckage before it caught on fire. Jerry already had the door open (which was on the passenger side) and was yelling to me that we were going to catch on fire if we didn't get out. It was a comedic act of two frantic people trying to get out of the single pilot door in one big hurry. We exited the Tri-Pacer and landed knee-deep in swamp water, and splashed our way to perceived safety away from the wreckage. As I saw it, all we managed to achieve was to become bait for the hordes of waiting hungry mosquitoes. In the silence we hugged each other in disbelief as we saw the situation that we found ourselves in. We were standing in the water, watching the airplane, and waiting for it to blow up!

When it didn't, we assessed our predicament. We were many miles away from civilization and trapped in nearly inaccessible country. The impact had automatically switched on the ELT (emergency locator transmitter) and I turned it off to conserve the battery. My back was hurting very badly, but I was able to move around. Miraculously, Jerry did not have a scratch. We were on an FAA flight plan. But I knew that in remote Alaska many pilots and their airplanes have disappeared in the rugged country, never to be found. I have since participated in fruitless searches for fellow pilots forever lost in the endless mountains and tundra. I realized then that this could happen to us.

I couldn't help staring at the wreckage as mosquitoes buzzed around us. I noted the 70-foot-long path in the trees that the airplane had mowed down. As we stood there, there was no noise, no movement of wind, only dead silence. It was hot. The stark landscape and the gnarly trees stood sentinel over us as we silently appraised the circumstances, hugging each other for support. The blazing Alaskan July sun bore down on us. The swamp water was a miasma of sulfuric smells. The temperatures can get into the 80s and 90s in the Alaskan interior, perfect breeding conditions for the hordes of mosquitoes. It was hard to approach the stricken aircraft, which was situated at a crazy angle and wrapped around the trees. It made me think that it could have killed us both.

We thought about the situation and figured that no one would come looking for us until my FAA flight plan expired at 6 that evening. I really figured that searchers would not even come looking for us until morning, since it was so late in the day. We sloshed knee-deep in the stinky bog near the Tri-Pacer as we gathered our belongings and survival gear.

I heard engine noise from far away, and wished that whoever was in the aircraft were coming for us. The engine drone disappeared into the stark silence and I cried. Evening rolled around and I manually turned on the ELT. I figured that I would keep it on for a while, then shut it off. I wanted to conserve battery power for the next morning, when the searchers would hopefully be looking for us.

We spent a hellish night huddled in the fuselage, feet resting on the instrument panel, trying to escape the massive mosquito attack. Earlier in the day I had taped up every visible rip and tear in the fuselage fabric with duct tape in an attempt to ward off the pests, to no avail. I tried escaping into my sleeping bag inside the airplane but it was too hot. At some point during the middle of our sleepless night a large unknown animal lurked around our downed airplane, snuffling in that way only an unknown entity can snuffle. We shot off the .44-caliber pistol we had with us to scare it off. The hordes of mosquitoes sang a constant requiem around our heads. The large animal went away. I never did look outside to see what it was, for I was too miserable.

The next morning hailed a high, thin overcast. It was hot already. I took oil out of the stricken engine and soaked spruce boughs with it to develop a smoky fire. We stood, eyes stinging, in the rancid smoke for relief from the biting hordes. The morning dragged on as we waited in silence and tried to endure the mosquitoes, heat, and wet feet. I heard different aircraft as they plied the distant skies. Their engine noise droned and waned in the intense silence as I hoped they would see us. My throat knotted and choked and tears fled from my eyes as the aircraft flew on, oblivious to our situation. Jerry tried to cheer me up. I figured that maybe no one knew we were here and that we would never be found. We contemplated walking out, but realized that staying with the downed aircraft would be better. My brain shrank at the thought of traipsing through the screaming wild swamps for months to get to a village.

Later that morning I spotted a Lockheed C-130 Hercules (Herc) way up in the sky. It was flying in obvious grids in its effort to pinpoint our ELT signal (this was before satellite tracking). I watched in awe and hope as the Herc stitched a pattern in the sky until it flew directly overhead. Was it really looking for us?

Its visual pattern finally centered right over us; then I knew that we were located. That Herc looked like it had to be at 10,000 feet. Within what seemed like five minutes I was startled by its flyby just over the trees! The crew must have done an emergency power-off dive to get down that low so quickly! It was roaring power, then silence as the Herc flew by us. Eerily, seconds later, the hair stood up on the back of my neck as the wake of the Guard Herc made the tops of the trees shiver in the utter summer silence. I could hear the exact path the aircraft made as the trees quivered. I will never forget that ghostly noise.

Two notes were airdropped before we could find the rescue radio in its red container and the parachute 30 feet up in a spruce tree. Jerry climbed up to retrieve the parachute. A third note was in with the radio. The notes asked if we were OK and informed us that the rescuers had medics if needed. When I turned on the radio they told us that it would be a number of hours before a helicopter could come and rescue us. The Herc circled over us the entire time, which gave us confidence and encouragement until the helicopter could show up to pluck us out of the wild.

Tired, exuberant, and hurting (in my case) we hammed it up by the Tri-Pacer, taking photos of each other as we mimed with the ELT radio. We parodied with glee. We knew we were out of there! Hours later, when the Army Chinook twin-engine helicopter roared over our site, we danced in the swamp with wild elation. We whooped and we hollered. The helicopter had red skis on it, which I thought was odd, until I found out that it needed them to land in the swamp. It had to circle over us for 10 minutes before it could find a suitable place to set down.

When it did, eight guys in green Army suits jumped out and splashed through the swamp to get to us. I will never forget the look of concern on their faces. Tears were streaming down my face. I was overtaken by gratitude. They were our benevolent saviors. I was gently grabbed up and escorted through the trees and swamp and into the chopper. They were very professional and businesslike. We roared off to freedom and safety as the paramedics busily assessed our health. I cried unashamedly; thankfulness was overtaking me, and then their faces blurred through my tears.

The Chinook rose up from the swamps and away from what could have been certain death. I gazed down at the twisted wreckage of the Tri-Pacer and suddenly realized how fortunate we were. The aircraft was demolished. I could hardly see it through the trees since the Tri-Pacer also was green. I could see the course the airplane took through trees and muskeg swamp. I could see the rubble left behind the aircraft.

I was later diagnosed as having multiple cracks in the vertebrae in my lower back and was laid up for some time. The three notes that the rescuers dropped down to us are framed and hanging on my wall. I saved a torn and crinkled piece of the fuselage. The photographs we took could not be developed. The film was ruined in the swamp water. I am still an active pilot and I have since bought and sold 10 airplanes, several of them antiques.

I flew commercially in Alaska's Arctic for many years. Flying is still the love of my life.

Ellen Paneok is an aviation safety inspector for the FAA in Alaska. Twenty-six years after the accident, Paneok has more than 14,000 hours.