Never Again


November 1, 1998

A friend and I recently realized our dream, pooled our resources, and purchased a Cessna 172. The paint was rough and faded, and the engine seemed to leak oil from everywhere. More than $7,000 later our newly dubbed Oily Bird returned to the skies. Being new to airplane ownership, I found that it was great having the freedom and spontaneity to jump into the airplane and fly whenever a clear sky called. So it was on a February night that I decided to take a young physician friend up for her first ride in a small airplane.

The silhouette of California's Mount Diablo 40 miles to the south marked our direction of flight. We flew over the Sacramento Delta for about 30 minutes. From 4,500 feet, the lights from Bay-area towns created a spectacular panorama. With a gentle banking turn we headed off to the Yolo County Airport in Davis to refuel. We then headed back to Sacramento's Executive Airport.

Ten miles out from Executive, after monitoring the ATIS and contacting the tower, I relaxed for the five minutes or so that it would take before we entered the landing pattern.

With an explosive suddenness, the windshield shattered, air rushed in, my door blew open, and there was a thud against the back of my seat. The noise rose to deafening levels.

"Mayday, mayday, mayday, Cessna Three-Six-Six-Four-Sierra, bird strike, my windshield is out, emergency."

Instinctively, I reached for the handle of my open door as the ground visibly rushed by below. I thought to myself, "We're still flying. I don't know what the aerodynamics of flight are with no windshield, but we're still flying; leave everything alone." The missing windshield caused a tremendous amount of drag as the cabin scooped up the oncoming air like a parachute. My open door was venting out most of it.

With the increased drag, we quickly lost altitude and airspeed. I must have pulled the throttle back just after the impact since the tachometer suddenly showed only 1,800 rpm. I pushed the throttle as far in as it would go, repeating the words "fly the airplane." I pushed the nose downward to maintain airspeed.

At 680 feet agl the speed increased to 75 mph, and I began to pull back on the yoke and slowly climb. When the altitude increased and we maintained 70 to 75 mph, I knew that we had the airport made.

Rather than fly a standard pattern to the active runway, I told the controller that I was going to make a straight-in approach to an inactive runway with which we were already aligned. The traffic had all been cleared, the wind was calm, and the controller said to take whichever runway I wanted. We landed safely, although a bit shaken.

The bird that I hit was a Canada goose. The prop took off its beak and left wing but otherwise left the 10-pound animal intact to smash through our windshield at 100 knots. It hit the ceiling light fixture just above our heads and sprayed the aft cabin with blood — Pulp Fiction-style, for those who have seen the movie. There was about $3,000 in damage — windshield, head liner, sun visors, prop check, cleanup — all covered by insurance.

Initially, when I thought of the incident, I chuckled. But now, when I think of the damage that a 10-pound object traveling in excess of 100 mph can do to your body or head, I chuckle a bit less. My passenger and I were lucky indeed.

I flew well that night. I was cautious, not reckless. The weather was good.

The tanks were full. I was in touch with the tower. Under pressure, I prioritized well.

Previously, I had joked about my airplane. I had noted its inadequacies. It was slow. It was old. It was like a Volkswagen in the sky — it was an object of derision. But on that night, it was a stable craft that got me and my passenger down safely.

People have a tendency to attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects — anthropomorphism. I am grateful to that airplane, that inanimate object. Never again will I take it for granted — we've been through a lot together.

Thomas A. Shragg, AOPA 1166185, of Sacramento, California, is a pulmonologist and critical care specialist who has accumulated more than 500 hours in nine years of flying. His Cessna 172 now has a new windshield.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts should be typewritten, double-spaced, and sent to: Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.