The Tale of a Bonanza’s Run-in with Some Very Large Trees

It was one of those situations where doing everything wrong turns out to be right. Dave Weaver

Last Thanksgiving, instead of wrestling with turkeys and relatives (not necessarily in that order or degree of difficulty), I fibbed and told my family I’d be out of town. Actually, I’d accepted an invitation from friends who always throw a splendid “do” with a large and eclectic collection of family, friends and assorted “homeless” souls like me. The feast is awesome, with all manner of libations, preprandial munchies, boned and roasted turkeys (Try talking your Kroger butcher into doing that!), both sweet and cured country hams, loads of sides and salads and far too many decadent desserts. My contribution? A “mess” of ham hocks and butter beans.

OK, it’s a little off the wall, but the hostess told me her mother always said lima beans were a Thanksgiving essential and I didn’t want to show up with a pot of naked lima beans. So, I found this recipe for what my mom would have called a “gemuse,” maybe something Appalachian folks cooked up after exhausting all the rabbits, squirrels and venison the old man shot. Those ham hocks and butterbeans turned out to be good eats, but my homely looking mess got short shrift next to more sophisticated sides. So, I bagged up the leftovers in a heavy-duty plastic sack and, a few days later, bombed a friend’s sod airstrip from the 180. What a magnificent splat!

Anyway, I was congratulating myself on having escaped the “extended family” dinner at my banker/nephew’s country club. Selfish? Maybe, but I don’t lay eyes on this obscure group of in-laws from one year to the next; besides, I don’t do small talk very well and none of them fly airplanes. I hate cooing over (sometimes, I furtively pinch) the latest baby who, like most babies, is more funny-looking than cute, cries a lot and smells bad. And I’m just not interested in who’s been married/divorced/estranged/cheated on/reunited or even passed on since last Thanksgiving. At a “certain age” you no longer have to pretend you’re having a wonderful time while listening to somebody’s ditsy great aunt who’s boring you outta your tree. I know they feel the same about me, even though I usually don’t cry or smell bad — but, yeah, I guess I’m ditsy.

Not knowing anybody, at first, I wasn’t all that comfortable at Clint and Sue’s party and was on the verge of quietly slipping away to my car up the street. But I told myself to be patient; people were rapidly loosening up as the drinks flowed, so I clutched my glass of Perrier and drifted into the pantry, where a man was standing by himself (probably thinking, Oh, no, here comes Sue’s ditsy great aunt!). Anyway, we struck up a conversation about airplanes since I don’t know how to talk about anything else and Clint and Sue’s house overlooks Lunken Airport. This man wasn’t a pilot, but he told me his younger brother had learned to fly years ago and had instructed at Lunken. He lives on the East Coast now, retired after a long career with the airlines.

“What’s his name?”

“Ben ----”

“Oh, my gosh, Ben ----? You mean Ben ‘the Tree Surgeon’?”

He looked at me strangely and said, “I can’t believe you remember that.”

Yeah, sure I do, and as accurately as possible after 50 years, here’s what I recall about him.

Ben was a very young, immature, very full-of-himself newly minted flight instructor with maybe 300 hours. A local wheeler-dealer airplane salesman needed somebody to ferry a Bonanza that had been sitting at the old South Blue Ash Airport — a grass strip about 10 miles north of Lunken. Departing that now defunct airport to the southwest put you on a straight-in approach for Lunken’s Runway 20. About 5 miles out, you descended into the valley, with a large hill to your right — an upscale residential neighborhood with a park on the hillside and a golf course just beyond.

Now, the old newspaper reports I found quote Ben saying he and the salesman who flew him to Blue Ash in a Cessna 172 (I think) just happened to be discussing forced-landing options during the short flight. I find that, uh, unlikely. I rather think they were discussing how to fly a Bonanza since, to my knowledge, Ben had never been near one. But, hell, what could happen on a short 10-mile hop? Ted-the-salesman probably told Ben to leave the gear down. Why tempt fate?

Anyway, after landing at Blue Ash, I assume they did some kind of preflight and Ben got cranked in the Bonanza. I do recall there was considerable discussion about whether the fuel tanks had been adequately (if at all) sumped, which was significant since this airplane had been sitting in the weeds at Blue Ash with partially filled tanks for, well, years.

You guessed it! About 5 miles out on final for Lunken, the engine quit. Ben was far too low to make the airport, and with the gear and flaps out, he was descending at an alarming rate — particularly for somebody who was used to flying a Cessna 150 or 172. He turned to the right, thinking that — just maybe — he could make one of the fairways at Hyde Park Country Club on that hill, but as he got lower, he got slower as he tried to stretch the glide. Finally, barely above stall speed, the airplane settled into the top of a very large tree on a city street bordering the golf course. It was one of those “When it’s not your time, it’s not your time” situations where doing everything wrong turns out to be right.

I say that because, from a little research (and a personal experience with an engine failure over the Poconos), I know the best thing for a "tree landing" is to be as slow as possible, with everything — gear and flaps — out, but still under control, still flying.
Ben kicked out a side window and cautiously — with an eye on the airplane above — climbed down to the lowest branch, which was about 20 feet above the ground. A lady appeared, and despite his pleas for a ladder, she kept exclaiming, "Oh my God!" until the fire department arrived. They hauled Ben off to the hospital on a stretcher, but his only injury was a cut from when he extracted himself from the airplane. The next day, a huge crane plucked the Bonanza out of the treetop.

I can still see him as he told the story, holding court in the airport restaurant. Somebody tagged him Ben “the Tree Surgeon,” and the nickname stuck.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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