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Helicopter lifts crashed plane from tree tops of state forest near Whitewater

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WHITEWATER (WKOW) - The miraculous survival of three people in a small plane's crash into tree tops one hundred feet above the ground near Whitewater is followed by the astonishing extraction of the plane Wednesday from the thick forest.

The lifting of the more than three thousand pound aircraft from the trees of the Kettle Moraine State Forest was carried out by pilot Don Pruett of Illinois-based Kash Helicopter Services.

Pruett has done helicopter recovery of airplanes in Alaska as well and has done this work for nearly two decades. He tells 27 News the removal of the crashed, SR22 from the canopy of trees was one of his most difficult jobs. "It's right up there at the top," Pruett says.

Authorities say the small plane lost power May 15, its parachute was deployed, and pilot Brian Onstad crash landed into the trees. Onstad and his two passengers survived unhurt. A five hour rescue effort involving more than a half dozen emergency response units and an area arborist removed the crash victims from their precarious perch.

The damaged plane was wedged into the trees. A section of the state land was closed off to hikers and other users for fear of spilling oil or fuel or the plane or one of its sections plummeting down.

With wind speed and other weather conditions optimal, Pruett first flew his helicopter to Hickory Woods Group Campground about one mile from the crash site. With his firm's crew members, arborists and others on the ground and in the trees to secure to line dangling from his helicopter to the stranded aircraft, Pruett says his focus was singular.

"My head's on the side in a bubble, we call it the bubble," Pruett says.

"So the only people in the world that exist are me and the guy on the ground," says Pruett.

"My goal is to make sure the aircraft is behaving properly," he says.

Pruett says the wreckage was wedged more tightly in the trees than he had expected but he was able to maneuver and get it aloft.

Once in the air, Pruett says the plane's state precluded a strange hazard particular to this type of recovery.

"It was a nose-low attitude, so the aircraft wouldn't try to out fly me," Pruett says.

His short, return flight ended with the small plane being set down in the campground with no issues.

"The guys receiving it were exactly where we asked them to be when we came down," Pruett says. "There were no surprises. No one was out of position. Everything worked perfect," he tells 27 News.

The exterior of the plane had some damage and an aircraft door that appeared to have come ajar was taped. No one on scene was able to give information on the crashed plane's condition overall.

The aircraft was to be removed from the campground on a flat bed truck. An FAA investigation continues into the plane's flight from Sheboygan to Burlington that ended up in the trees.

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Tony Galli

Reporter, WKOW

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