A 79-year-old pilot crash-landed his plane into a tree a few miles east of McCall on Monday night — and a firefighter scaled the 60-foot tree to get him to the ground safely, with the plane perched precariously on top.
The pilot was not injured in the crash, and neither was anyone who helped rescue him, according to the McCall Fire Department. Rescuers had him out of the tree just after midnight, two hours after arriving at the scene.
The pilot was McCall resident John Gregory, according to a press release from the Valley County Sheriff’s Office. The plane was a Piper Cub PA-18. The tree was a giant white fir.
“We were very impressed that it was at the top of a tree,” McCall Fire Captain Brandon Swain told the Statesman. “We really didn’t say much when we got on scene. We didn’t expect to see it as high up.”
The strut of one of the lightweight plane’s wheels appeared to be wrapped around the tree. Most of the weight of the plane was in one tree, but it also was touching a lodgepole pine nearby.
“Those wings were perfectly centered over the top of the tree,” Swain said. The plane was largely intact; a piece of the prop and one wheel were on the ground.
The pilot took off from Challis and was intending to land at the McCall Airport before the plane began to lose power. He then tried to divert to a field, Swain said.
The Valley County Sheriff’s Office said in a press release that it was notified at 8:19 p.m. of a SPOT locator beacon activation. At 8:42 p.m., it received notice of an emergency position radio beacon. Gregory also called 911 to report that he’d crashed into a tree.
The McCall Fire Department was dispatched to the area of Poorman Creek and Boulder Lake Road and got there just after 10 p.m.
There’s still snow in the mountains, so they traveled to the site on snowmobiles. Valley County Search and Rescue also responded, and received assistance from Jug Mountain Ranch.
Helicopters also were dispatched: an air ambulance from Boise, and Two Bear Air from Montana.
But fire officials had concern about the “rotor wash,” or force of the air from helicopter blades, possibly dislodging the plane from the tree.
“The only control we could have was to come from the bottom side up,” Swain said.
As it happens, McCall firefighter Randy Acker is a hazardous tree expert and owns a tree-removal company. He offered to scale the tree.
The rescue effort took place well after dark, so they worked by the lights from a Sno-Cat, which was brought by a local resident.
Swain said seven people on the ground watched the tree carefully as Acker climbed it, cutting limbs with a chainsaw as he ascended. He stopped cutting about 20 feet from the top.
“We were nervous,” Swain said. “The majority of the limbs at the top were helping support that plane.”
There was no way to know how hard the plane hit the tree or whether the tree was seriously compromised. But the plane didn’t budge while Acker worked to get the pilot out, Swain said.
Acker secured the plane to the tree with rope webbing. He then got the pilot into a safety harness so he could be lowered to the ground. Jordan Ockunzzi and Swain helped Gregory down through a process called belaying.
The plane likely will be recovered from the tree in the next week or two, possibly pulled out by helicopters. The public is asked to stay away from the crash site.
“We do not want to see anyone get hurt by going to see the plane,” Valley County Sheriff Patti Bolen said in the release.