Report: Pilot hit tree while flying low to stay below controlled airspace

Was awaiting air traffic instructions

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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A pilot who crash-landed his small plane in a gravel pit July 5, putting himself and a passenger in a hospital, had just taken off from Grove Field in Camas and was flying low intentionally — and that led to his hitting a tree, an official said.

Pilot Steven Leigh Emerson, 54, of Camas later told investigators he was flying low over the hills around Larch Mountain while trying to stay below the controlled airspace of Portland International Airport.

Emerson had filed a flight plan before taking off in the late morning, and was maneuvering at about 2,400 feet, said Howard Plagens, a senior air-safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to the preliminary investigation, Emerson was flying low and waiting for air traffic controllers at Portland International Airport to make radio contact with him and give him instructions to enter their controlled airspace.

The airspace must be constantly monitored to prevent collisions with other planes, including jetliners.

In the Larch Mountain area, the controlled airspace is a layer from 2,000 to 4,000 feet, said Mike Fergus, a regional spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Emerson told investigators he was maneuvering in a canyon and trying to climb out when he hit the top of a tree, Plagens said Wednesday.

One wing hit the tree during a turn, according to the NTSB’s preliminary investigation.

“That yanked him down,” Plagens said.

The hard landing heavily damaged the Grumman American AA-5 single-engine low-wing plane, breaking it nearly in half just behind the engine, according to photos taken at the scene.

Firefighters, called about 10:50 a.m., put foam on a small fuel leak and extricated Emerson and his passenger from the wreckage. Paramedics took them by ambulance to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

Emerson has since been released from the medical center, a hospital employee said.

His passenger has not been named in public records and Plagens said he isn’t authorized to release the name.

Plagens said he was told both men suffered broken bones and have been recovering at home. Investigators have spoken briefly with Emerson and plan to interview him once he’s off pain medications and is feeling better.

At this point, Plagens said, investigators don’t know why Emerson was unable to climb out of the canyon — whether it was an engine problem, pilot error or some other cause. That may be determined in the continuing investigation.

In addition, Plagens said, he didn’t yet know what part of the plane hit the ground first.

Immediately after the crash, officials complimented Emerson on the emergency landing.

“The pilot did a heck of a job landing,” said Chief Scott Koeh­ler with East County Fire & Rescue. “That was really the only carved-out place for miles. Everything else was hillside.”

He added: “Out of all those trees he could have put it down in, he found the gravel pit. They were lucky to be alive.”

Emerson and his passenger had planned a trip to Grant County Regional Airport in John Day, Ore.

Both the NTSB and FAA are investigating, but the NTSB is responsible for determining the probable cause of such mishaps and releasing information to the public when appropriate, Plagens said.

The FAA website lists Emerson as a commercial pilot certified to fly multi-engine planes in all kinds of weather. He also is a certified flight engineer on turbojet powered planes, and an airframe and power plant mechanic.

The airplane, which was registered to Emerson, was manufactured in 1975, according to FAA data.

AA-5 planes, some called Travelers, were geared to the personal-aviation market for touring and training.

With four seats, they were “instantly popular,” according to http://airliners.net.

With 150-horsepower Lycoming engines, the Travelers cruise at 127 knots, faster than another very popular plane, the high-wing Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Travelers can climb to a service ceiling of 13,800 feet, the website says.

The site where the plane landed is used by some as a shooting range east of Hockinson, on the L1400 Road.

Emerson has declined several requests for interviews by The Columbian and other news services.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com