A picture may be worth a thousand words, but is a picture worth being forwarded a thousand times? Starting in December 2006, a photo of a small airplane lodged in a large tree, framed by a "Learn to Fly Here!" sign, began its journey through the inboxes of the Internet public at an extraordinary rate. This is the true story of that photo.
Meadow Lake Airport, located in the shadow of Pike's Peak, about 15 miles northeast of City of Colorado Springs Municipal Airport in Colorado, and about 20 miles from the U.S. Air Force Academy, is one of the largest pilot-owned airports in the United States. With more than 450 based aircraft, it is a hub of general aviation activity in the region, relieving operational pressure from the air traffic controllers at Colorado Springs Municipal. Several fixed base operators (FBOs) also call the field their home; among them are Classic Air, which primarily rents Piper airplanes to flight students and pilots, and American Aviation, which rents mostly Cessna airplanes.
On the afternoon of December 7, 2006, Terry Brookham, an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 30 years experience, rented a Piper Archer from Classic Air to practice his takeoffs and landings at night in order to maintain his night currency. He hoped to finish in time to make it to his karate lesson that evening. The Piper he rented for that winter afternoon was serial number 28-4917, now carrying the FAA tail number N6487J.
Brookham was no novice to flight. A graduate of Aviation High School in Redondo Beach, California (a bit of a misnomer, as the school's name referred not to flying, but rather to the road on which it was located), Brookham's desire to fly was sparked when he was enlisted in the U.S. Navy. There, aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hancock, he served as an airplane captain on the ship's flight deck. After his service was complete, the "brown shirt" worked toward and completed his private pilot certificate in 1975, adding an instrument rating a few years later. From 1984 to 1995, he flew as a mountain/mission pilot for the Civil Air Patrol, with one find and two saves to his credit. He also flew skydivers for two years with his own Cessna 206. In the time since, he had become self-employed with his wife, Debbie, selling premium pet food and working toward retirement.
The winds that afternoon favored Runway 15, a 6,000-foot-long by 60-foot-wide strip of asphalt. His engine set at 2,200 rpm, and the sun having set at 4:40 p.m., Brookham was flying the downwind leg of his first pattern to the northeast of the runway and starting to descend when, at around 5 p.m. and for no apparent reason, the engine lost power.
Brookham's eyes darted to the vertical speed indicator, showing a descent of 500 fpm. Brookham immediately executed engine failure emergency procedures. Referring to the checklist, he turned on the airplane's carburetor heat and advanced the throttle forward, but the engine showed no response. Checking the aircraft systems from right to left in an attempt to determine the cause of the problem and hopefully restart the engine, he checked the carburetor heat, fuel mixture, engine throttle, and magnetos. The engine sputtered slightly, but still there was no power.
Finishing with a check of the fuel systems and unable to restart the engine, Brookham glided downward. But with only 40 knots of airspeed, in the pitch black of the night, and with a windmilling propeller, his options were limited. He chose his base to land, lining up with the east-west road running near the airport, Judge Orr Road, and continued to glide downward for a forced landing. He hoped to land on Judge Orr Road and have the airplane stopped by the time he reached the intersection of Highway 24.
"I was just trying to get the airplane down safely," he says. He knew that there were homes in the vicinity of the airport and didn't want to hurt anyone. But in the darkness, in the seconds before touchdown, as he tilted the airplane's nose downward, he saw a frightening pair of lights—those of an oncoming car.
Maneuvering to avoid a potentially deadly collision, Brookham swerved to the left, cut a set of power lines, and smashed into a cottonwood tree near the intersection of Cessna Drive and Judge Orr Road. The airplane became lodged in the tree, crushing both wings rearward, snapping the engine nearly off, and wrinkling the vertical stabilizer.
I'm alive, thought Brookham, after the sickening sound of crunched metal passed. Dazed from the impact, and with fuel leaking out of the airplane's wings, Brookham sat stunned. Like an angel of mercy, an active-duty Air Force officer from Schriever Air Force Base, who was driving nearby, pulled up to the site and called up into the tree to find out whether anyone was alive in the wreck.
"Yeah!" Brookham called back down.
The Air Force officer told Brookham of the leaking fuel and advised him to get out of the airplane as soon as possible. Brookham first shut down all of the airplane's still-functioning electronics and began to exit the aircraft. However, the design of the Archer's single cockpit door precluded his exit. The crash had warped the fuselage and sealed it in a coffin-like manner. The only option for a safe exit was through the windows.
Brookham kicked out the left side window and began to climb down the tree, the smell of 100LL filling the air. Almost as if it had been planned, a local roofer's truck pulled up to the tree to lend a hand with an extension ladder, greatly aiding Brookham in his climb down. In the climb, he received the only injuries of his ordeal—a pair of scratches above his left eye.
Brookham gave his thanks to all those who helped him as emergency workers closed Judge Orr Road because of debris from the crash, which caused a power outage for the hangars at the airport, as well as about nearby 100 homes, for about two hours. But before the Falcon Fire Department and sheriff arrived on site, one group was already there—the news media.
After a visit to the responding ambulance, and giving several interviews to officials, Brookham headed home.
"Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing," said Brook-ham the Friday morning after the crash. "I don't think anything's wrong with the airplane...maybe there's something wrong with me."
The airplane was removed from the tree and relocated to a hangar in Greeley, Colorado, for further examination. But before it was removed, news crews from the area documented the unusual crash, taking photos and video of the rare combination of tree and airplane. As Brookham had last heard, the airplane was being salvaged for parts, as most of the avionics and instruments were still in good working order.
An examination of the Lycoming engine and its systems by investigators revealed no anomalies. However, given the conditions at the time of the flight—temperatures below freezing and high humidity—were, according to the manufacturer's carburetor icing probability chart, conducive for "serious icing at glide power" and "serious icing at cruise power."
Brookham did not turn on the carburetor heat because the manual for the Archer does not call for that when closing the throttle, unlike in some Cessnas, nor had he ever been taught to do that by any of his instructors.
Knowing this, the NTSB concluded that the likely cause of the accident was the "loss of power due to carburetor icing," with contributing factors to the accident being weather conditions conducive to carburetor icing, unsuitable terrain available on which to make a forced landing, and, of course, the tree.
No one has publicly claimed credit for creating it, but the juxtaposed image of a crashed airplane with a sign offering flight instruction seemed to be the perfect fodder for the e-mail inboxes and blogs of Internet users everywhere, pilots and non-pilots alike. An additional, yet subtle, jab to Classic Air is that one of its airplanes is in the photo, yet the name of its airfield competitor is featured so prominently.
However, that photo is the product of some clever use of photo-editing software. The two signs do stand near the tree. However, they face the opposite direction from which the photo was taken. The image of the two signs was transposed onto the image of the airplane lodged in the tree to produce the comical image.
Nevertheless, the photo has also been published in numerous aviation publications, as an interesting snapshot that seems to strike a chord with readers everywhere.
"It is funny," said Brookham, in response to the photo.
Christopher L. Freeze, of Martinez, California, is a commercial pilot working on his multiengine and CFI ratings.