What's To Be Learned From This Tree Landing?

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Has it gotten to the point that that ultimate gesture of privacy—crashing an airplane into a tree—is now suddenly a thing of the past? Evidently, judging by this video of a tree landing near Robertson Field in Connecticut this week. It’s possible to draw some useful things from this viral clip.

The overarching one is don’t do anything—I mean anything—unless you’re comfortable seeing it on YouTube because there’s fairly high probability it will appear there for all the world to see. Second, does this clip answer the question of the survivability of putting one into the trees? Not entirely, no, but it does offer a useful datapoint. Is also shows that under a specific set of circumstances, a nearly 40-year-old Skyhawk has impressive crashworthiness, even as it wallows through what appears to be a textbook stall-mush. Indeed, the airplane may have been about to enter a spin just as it intercepted the tree. Look at the video closely and see what you make of that left wing drop right near the end.

Tree landings, it turns out, are often survivable and this video shows why. A few years ago, I tried to develop some data to see how often they are survivable and how they compare to the survivability of water landings. The exercise was indeterminate because the NTSB files didn’t provide enough detail to judge what was an intentional tree landing and what was just a crash into trees.

Nonetheless, if you’ve ever flown over a carpet of green and contemplated what you’d do if the engine quit, putting it into the forest crown is an option. This video shows that if the airspeed at impact is slow enough, the cabin and aircraft will remain intact enough to increase if not guarantee survivability. Survival or survival with injuries can turn on small things, like whether a shoulder harness is used and is snugged down securely and how much unsecured junk you’ve got in the back of the airplane. Think about a tow bar coming adrift and denting your noggin. Or some tiedown stakes. Or all the other paraphernalia you have in the airplane. (I once carried a 24-inch monitor and a printer.)

Fire is always a worry. When I was a young pilot, the operative advice if you knew you were going into trees was to slow the airplane down as much as possible while still maintaining control—good advice—and then aim between the trees so the wings would be ripped off, absorbing the energy. Yeah, but … that’ll likely open up the wings so if you survive the impact, you die in the fire. Nothing about this crashing business is ever simple. But if you walk away—or are least carried away alive—you’ve illustrated the definition of victory. The pilot of the 172, Manfred Forst, had minor injuries, so he wins this week’s lottery.

Comments (29)

The tree saved his ass.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | September 12, 2017 4:13 PM    Report this comment

Kudos to Mr. Forst; with flying like that who needs an airframe parachute? Another good you tube video to watch is the Stinson 108 going down in trees after a backcountry takeoff (filmed from inside the cabin). Several of those fellows were able to keep filming after climbing out of the wrecked cabin, sitting on a log in the woods.

Posted by: A Richie | September 12, 2017 4:13 PM    Report this comment

It's good that this one was a non-fatal, though it doesn't bode well for GA in general, at least in CT. Our Senator has already written a letter to the FAA *demanding* (it actually uses that word) what actions are being taken to improve GA's safety. It was prompted by an unfortunate string of fatal crashes in the state this year.

I'm not sure if the non-flying public will see this as a case for how safe GA can be if luck and/or skill intervene, or if it will just be another case of "those small planes are dangerous". I'm also not sure if it was pilot skill that brought the plane to intersect with the tree, or if it was pure luck. Hard to tell from just this one video.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | September 12, 2017 4:41 PM    Report this comment

I have known several pilots who have survived tree landings. All have had similar comments about flying it into the tops as if landing on the tops. They also expressed dismay at the situation of getting from the tree tops to the ground.

Now we have to wait for the official investigation and cause ruling. Unfortunately, a few seconds of pre crash video does not come close to presenting sufficient evidence to come to an informed conclusion. We will have to wait, as Paul Harvey would say, for "the rest of the story."

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | September 12, 2017 7:41 PM    Report this comment

"The overarching one is don't do anything--I mean anything--unless you're comfortable seeing it on YouTube"

How very true, and it's been so for awhile. One Saturday, over ten years ago, I flew to the ice runway at Alton Bay, New Hampshire (B18). As I was taxiing back I watched a Grumman come in for a landing, drift into the powdery snow and literally get sideways as he plowed towards me. The plane (or pilot) straightened out and got back on the runway with no damage.

Later, in the restaurant, the pilot recounted his tale with some embarrassment. I told him not to worry as the evidence would be gone by spring.

No such luck.

Someone was taping the fly-in, and had transferred the video and uploaded it to YouTube by the next day (Sunday).

Even worse, the flying club that rented the plane saw the video on YouTube before they heard from the pilot. They were not happy.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | September 12, 2017 8:16 PM    Report this comment

Really bad flying saved by pure luck.
A few feet either way (or a slight gust) and he's a classic stall/spin pile-driver into the asphalt.
This was not planned, this was another example (like the teen girl who crashed in the mountains just before dark) of how NOT to pilot an aircraft.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 12, 2017 9:47 PM    Report this comment

Here's what the FAA could do to increase safety: get the hell out of the way and leave us alone.

Has the FAA saved lives each year with all their regulations? Undoubtedly.

Has GA safety been kept from improvement by decades of the same? Obviously.

You see, both things are possible at the same time.

Is there anyone so statist left in the USA that can't see our flight schools, and most of our private pilots, could not still be flying decades old designs had not there been the influence of so much regulation? Even if you can't see my point, how is it that just about everything with a motor except piston aircraft improved so much and we are still training pilots in half century old airframe designs with WW2 engine tech?

What other constant except federally induced ossification is there?

Posted by: Eric Warren | September 13, 2017 2:15 AM    Report this comment

I hope he hugged that tree afterwards..

Posted by: John Patson | September 13, 2017 5:49 AM    Report this comment

Slowing the aircraft to minimum controllable speed and touching down into the relatively soft upper branches of trees may sound appealing, but the next step is very likely to be a vertical plunge into the floor of the forest. Tall trees may not be your friend.

Posted by: jerry king | September 13, 2017 6:48 AM    Report this comment

That's pretty much what I wrote to my senator when he was whining about GA's safety record. He was concerned about BasicMed, and I explained that it has the potential to actually increase safety, because pilots won't avoid medical treatment out of fear for losing their medical. Some regulations are good, but the ones that have unintended consequences that actually make things worse or slow down progress are not.

"...touching down into the relatively soft upper branches of trees may sound appealing, but the next step is very likely to be a vertical plunge into the floor of the forest."

The good news is, if the aircraft falls to the floor of the forest, the trees will slow down its descent. Getting stuck at the top and having to climb down, on the other hand, is where the problem is.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | September 13, 2017 7:32 AM    Report this comment

Flying over a state that has plenty of both, I would opt for trees over water. There have been a number of controlled landings in treetops in Maine over the last three decades or so that I am aware of, none of which resulted in a fatality. I am aware of a CFI who broke his ankle in just such a case, and he had the thing under control, so you can't over-emphasize the need to meet that condition. In another case an acquaintance emailed me a picture of his Cub in a Nova Scotia treetop. He took the picture himself after he'd climbed out of it, presumably in search of hard liquor. In some instances there is no question in my mind that treetops would be preferable to the underlying terrain. I'll grant you that is a hard sell when you're too high to pick out stone walls and other impedimenta and still full of unfounded optimism about that clearing below you.
The only guy I know who ditched did so in a C-170 off the South Shore of Massachusetts quite a few years ago. He survived uninjured but considered himself fortunate for two reasons. First, he had not realized how quickly the airplane would come to a stop. Just before he touched down he shoved the seat back as far as it would go purely out of instinct and said that had he not done so, he'd have hit the yoke with his head. (This was a pre-shoulder harness incident in the early 1970s.) Second, he said he was not prepared for how fast the thing would sink. He said he scampered out as quickly as he could and turned around, thinking he would climb aboard and wait for a nearby boat to pick him up. But the plane was already beneath the surface and continuing to settle.
The nearby boat was the company yacht of the magazine Motor Boating.
Publication-owned yachts! Those were the days, Paul.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | September 13, 2017 10:59 AM    Report this comment

The B52, the A10 and the C172s continue to be effective flying platforms. Plastic does not make new designs safer.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 13, 2017 11:02 AM    Report this comment

It is sometimes better to be lucky than good.

Posted by: William kalichman | September 13, 2017 2:47 PM    Report this comment

I was taught by a former WWII Avenger pilot in a J3 and was told "you can never, ever stretch a glide". Apparently that was proven in the video.

Posted by: April Talmadge | September 13, 2017 5:44 PM    Report this comment

The video makes a strong case that this instance was one of pure DSL.
I introduce stalls right after glides - by having students attempt to stretch one of those newly-mastered glides. It seems to leave a deeper impression than yank-and-break.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | September 14, 2017 6:18 AM    Report this comment

"I introduce stalls right after glides - by having students attempt to stretch one of those newly-mastered glides. It seems to leave a deeper impression than yank-and-break."

Hmm, I like that idea. I don't have any primary students, but I could incorporate that pretty easily into flight reviews and such.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | September 14, 2017 7:28 AM    Report this comment

"you can never, ever stretch a glide".

You can maximize a glide, but you can't stretch it.

Posted by: Richard Montague | September 14, 2017 7:35 AM    Report this comment

From the Kathryn's report: "The plane had touched down on the runway but the pilot did not like the landing so it took off again. The pilot then made a right turn, clipping a tree before crashing into the rear parking lot of Carling Technologies, which is adjacent to the airport."

Looks like maybe, just maybe, this man should not be flying. The C172 was doing alright, stoically protecting the manipulator of the controls.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 14, 2017 8:31 AM    Report this comment

Not mentioned yet is how a turning airplane can dissipate energy. An old pilot with years of over flying water told me that if he had to land on the water, he would slow the airplane to just above stall speed and put a wing down to catch the water. His theory was that this would prevent the airplane from flipping and slow it down without an abrupt stop.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | September 14, 2017 10:17 AM    Report this comment

I think we're missing some huge business opportunity. Professional tree pruning!
With Raf on this one. The plane did what it could to protect the nut that connected the seat with the yoke on this one. Damn good advertising for general aviation, thank you!

Posted by: Jason Baker | September 14, 2017 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Thanks Rafael.
From reading Kathryn's Report, the picture becomes one of a pilot who crashed a perfectly good aircraft in perfectly good weather.

"What's To Be Learned From This Tree Landing?"
First off, it was not a landing.
Next is that the aircraft was not in controlled flight (due only to the deficiency of the PIC).
Lastly, It's best served as yet another example of what not to do.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 14, 2017 11:07 AM    Report this comment

"the picture becomes one of a pilot who crashed a perfectly good aircraft in perfectly good weather. "

Are we so sure that the facts point to pure pilot error as the cause of the crash? Certainly the last few seconds look like a pilot trying to "stretch" a glide with predictable results (other than the luck of hitting a tree at just the right moment to prevent disaster), but I haven't seen enough details to come to a conclusion as to what led up to that point.

"An old pilot with years of over flying water told me that if he had to land on the water, he would slow the airplane to just above stall speed and put a wing down to catch the water. His theory was that this would prevent the airplane from flipping and slow it down without an abrupt stop."

I'm not sure I buy that theory, and it seems like it's adding unnecessary risk in trying to maneuver an aircraft at near-stall-speed by banking rather steeply just before water impact. It sounds more like an intentional loss-of-control.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | September 14, 2017 1:12 PM    Report this comment

Parked it perfectly in the handicap space. At least he doesn't have to worry about getting door dings!

Posted by: A Richie | September 14, 2017 1:21 PM    Report this comment

Very sure about pilot error (since the pilot did not mention any aircraft problems).
There is no reason to think that the NTSB will find a problem when the pilot did not report any.
Until there is counter evidence I'll have to believe the pilot, witnesses, and the video.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 14, 2017 4:11 PM    Report this comment

"Not mentioned yet is how a turning airplane can dissipate energy. An old pilot with years of over flying water told me that if he had to land on the water, he would slow the airplane to just above stall speed and put a wing down to catch the water. His theory was that this would prevent the airplane from flipping and slow it down without an abrupt stop."

Sounds like a fast way to flip a 172 on its dorsal. Plausible for a low wing, but I wouldn't employ that strategy. At least you can brace for the forward deceleration. Once the thing flips you are along for the ride.

Posted by: Anthony A | September 14, 2017 5:41 PM    Report this comment

With regard to water ditching, if you are flying a fixed gear airplane - high or low wing - the probability of flipping is very high. If you bank far enough to dip a wing before the gear hits the water, a cartwheel will likely result. That may dissapate engergy, but your neck may not survive the whiplash. Assuming you are securely belted in with a shoulder harness, surviving a flip is highly likely. The trick comes with overcoming the disorientation and following the proper steps to exit the plane. The September AOPA Pilot magazine has an interesting article on water ditching that has some good insights.

Statistically, high wing airplanes do better in ditching incidents than low wing. That is because, unless you have Sully level skills, it is almost impossible to land a low wing totally flat to avoid the cartwheel. In a high wing plane the fuselage and tail tend to dissipate the energy in a straight line before either wing meets the water. Unfortunately, there are not any good ways to practice ditching (or off-airport landings, for that matter) in a real airplane to perfect your technique.

Posted by: John McNamee | September 15, 2017 11:37 AM    Report this comment

In the most heavilly wooded country in the world (the old USSR), I believe that the POH for the ubiquitous Antanov AN-2 biplane instructed pilots to simply hold the stick fully back in the event of an engine fialurre over trees. The leading edge slats on the upper wing rendered the thing virtually unstallable in any conventional sense and it simply 'parachuted' into the treetops with a forward speed of about 35mph. As may Russian pilots will testify, eminenetly survivable.

Posted by: Peter Ben | September 15, 2017 1:30 PM    Report this comment

"With regard to water ditching, if you are flying a fixed gear airplane - high or low wing - the probability of flipping is very high."

Not sure where you're getting this data or coming to this conclusion. During the late 1990s and again in the 2000s, I reviewed a significant number of ditching incidents--almost 200 the first time and another 100 or so added to that later. I reviewed all the NTSB files and interviewed some survivors.

There was no evidence at all that flipping or cartwheeling was common or likely. In many cases--most, actually--the accident details were too sparsely reported to determine if the airplane flipped. My conclusion was that it's not rare, but not a given, either. Also, the notion that a cartwheel or a flip will cause whiplash or other unsurvivable injuries is not supported in the data. Of 179 accidents in the first study, only one specifically mentioned flipping.

The broad view is that the successful egress rate is 92 percent, meaning that in those 200-plus accidents, that's the percentage of occupants who got out of the airplanes successfully. A small number of those drowned for lack of floatation gear. One or two died of injuries sustained in impact.

It's not true that you need Sully like skills to survive a ditching, even a low wing. The data showed that five student pilots ditched and survived. Some even went into ocean swells and lived to tell the tale.

It is true that high wing airplanes are underepresented: Although they were involved in 49 percent of all the ditchings, they represent only 27 percent of the fatalities. On the other hand, low wing airplanes represent 41 percent of the total ditchings, but accounted for 68 percent of the fatalities. The second data set was more evenly represented, so I can't strongly support the conclusion that high wings have a higher survival rate. Maybe, but the overall data is too sparse to conclude this.

Bottom line, if you ditch, you have a 90-percent plus chance of surviving, except in open ocean, where it drops to 82 percent. This is what prompted the study of tree landings. The question was are more than 90 percent of tree landings survivable? I couldn't develop the data to even estimate it, for the reasons I stated.

But for me persoanally, if I had the choice, I'd take the water.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 17, 2017 6:28 AM    Report this comment

"But for me personally, if I had the choice, I'd take the water."
If I lived in Florida I might, too!
However, six months out of the year, or more, water temps in northern New England yield a survival expectancy of an hour or less. And it doesn't get much better until summer. Unless you know can get ashore quickly and find warmth, not a given in places like rural Maine, or build a fire, the risk-reward proposition is probably not in your favor.
When I was a young fisherman, in the pre-immersion suit era, the waggish advice in the event of irreversible flooding was, grab the anchor and go over the side. Spotter pilots hereabouts, who may work 200 miles offshore, (to your point, I know of none who have perished at sea), have had good fortune when it comes to finding vessels to ditch alongside, thank goodness.
It's not so much drowning that puts the fear of God in them. It's freezing to death.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | September 19, 2017 10:54 AM    Report this comment

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