Never Again

Buzzard at 12 o'clock

October 1, 2000

It began as a routine flight on a hot October afternoon. The weather briefer had given me 3,000 scattered and three to five miles' visibility for my flight from our small airport at Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, to Brunswick County Airport in Southport, North Carolina. I was to pick up our company president, and the two of us were going to Cincinnati for a meeting the next morning. The winds were light and variable, and I filed IFR for 4,000 feet. Flight time would be one hour and two minutes for the first leg in the company Cessna 210.

A few seconds after liftoff, I pulled the gear up and retracted the takeoff flaps. I climbed out at 110 knots. Once I reached 2,500 feet, I tried contacting Washington Center to pick up my clearance. No luck. "Man, they weren't kidding about that three-to-five-mile visibility," I thought. I leveled off at 4,000 feet just as Center confirmed radar contact and gave me my clearance: direct Tar River VOR, direct Wallo Intersection, RNAV direct to Brunswick County Airport, maintain 4,000 feet. Forward visibility was virtually nonexistent. "May as well call it IFR," I mused.

At 20 miles out, Wilmington Approach called the airport at 12 o'clock and cleared me down to 3,000 feet with instructions to report the field in sight. The visibility had improved, but not much. Wilmington further advised that no landing or weather information was available for Brunswick County. I reported that I was level at 3,000 feet, and the controller instructed me to report the field in sight. The next call came when the controller cleared me to 2,000 feet and advised the airport at 12 o'clock and nine miles. As I descended, I contacted Wilmington and reported Brunswick County in sight and canceled my IFR flight plan.

Brunswick reported surface winds from 100 degrees at 11 kt, favoring Runway 5, with one aircraft in the pattern doing touch and goes. I entered a seven-mile 45-degree intercept for a left downwind to Runway 5 and continued my descent. As I approached 165 kt, I looked up and saw a bird floating on a thermal way out in front of me. As I pulled the landing gear lever down, I thought to myself that the bird would pass off pretty close to me, so I continued to watch it but did not focus on it. In the next few seconds I approached the bird with what seemed to be lightning speed, and my thoughts were that I would pass just underneath it.

The next thing I knew, I saw a flash of black followed by a loud explosion on the windshield. I felt sharp stings to my face, neck, chest, right arm, and shoulder. Instantly, my shirt sleeve, right side, and right pants leg had blood all over them.

I looked up to the right side of the windshield and saw a large buzzard stuck in the right sun visor and headliner. There was a hole that looked big enough to drive a Mack truck through on the right side of the windshield. And it looked strange to see so clearly straight through to the great outdoors. The noise was deafening. Paper and everything else loose in the cockpit was flying around like autumn leaves in a tornado.

I reached over and pulled the bloody and very dead buzzard loose and dropped him onto the floor on the copilot side. When I looked back up, the airplane was in a sharp nose-down right turn. The VSI was showing a steep descent, and I was only at 1,700 feet.

Fly the airplane first. The words from my instructor over all the years came back to me instantly. Instinctively, I did.

The absolute first thing to do was to slow down, to get the aircraft under control and stabilized. As I eased back on the throttle ever so slightly, I slowed to 120 kt. My primary focus was the airspeed indicator and the VSI. Except when absolutely required elsewhere, after the initial impact, my right hand never left the throttle and my left hand never left the yoke.

"Brunswick County Unicom, Centurion Six-Six-One-Nine-Charlie. Emergency. I have a bird strike and hole in my windshield. Centurion Six-Six-One-Nine-Charlie declaring an emergency. Emergency landing Runway 5 Brunswick County." If they said anything back to me, I did not hear it. Although I had on my headset, the noise in the cockpit was deafening.

I had control of the airplane and was at pattern altitude. I pulled in 10 degrees of flaps and slowed to 110 kt. Descent was 500 to 700 feet per minute, and I could maintain that by keeping the power up. There was a yaw to starboard because of the hole in the windshield, but strong rudder trim made it manageable. Although my focus was 100 percent on flying that airplane, I did think about opening the window beside me to relieve some of the pressure from the wind coming through the hole in the windshield. But another part of my brain said to leave well enough alone. The tremendous crack running across what was left of the windshield could be affected by any sudden change in the airflow or pressure and could cause the rest of it to come out. I opted to keep what I had.

The turn from downwind to base was my first departure from straight and level. I gently banked the aircraft. I wasn't sure how it was going to behave. The turn went well, and I leveled out for a few seconds before turning onto final.

There was an 11-kt crosswind at 50 degrees off the nose. This, coupled with the large hole in the windshield, gave me a strong crab angle on final. I was hesitant to apply full opposite rudder, not knowing for sure what might happen. Also, I was afraid that too much stress to the airplane might cause the remaining windshield to break out. I knew I was dealing with a different stall speed, but did not know what it would be. Once I had the runway made, while gingerly correcting for drift, I put down another 10 degrees of flaps and slowed to 100 kt, then 90. Everything seemed to be OK, and I was on short final.

In a few seconds, I heard the most beautiful sound I ever heard: the chirp of the stall horn. Then I was on the ground. The airplane and I both were still in one piece. "Brunswick County, Six-Six-One-Nine-Charlie is clear of the active," I radioed.

The next day, I received a call from the mechanic who would be making the repairs. He advised me that he had removed a damaged wing root faring from the leading edge of the right wing. He noted that the impact from the buzzard had caused the faring to hit the right aileron pulley, causing it to jam into the fuel line from the right fuel tank and crimping it shut. The fuel system in our 210 is configured so that the fuel selector valve must be set either to the left or right tank but can't be set to burn fuel from both at the same time. As luck would have it, I had the selector set to the left tank. Had I been flying from the right tank, the crimped fuel line could have caused fuel starvation and loss of the engine at a time when I already had more than enough problems to deal with. However, if I had made a slight turn off my course when I first saw the buzzard in my path, maybe none of this would have occurred. I was lucky; the buzzard wasn't.

Rick Phillips, AOPA 1093557 , of Littleton, North Carolina, recently sold his Cessna 172 but continues to fly his company's Cessna 210. He is a 1,000-hour pilot with commercial and instrument ratings. He is currently working on his flight instructor certificate.

"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.