Animal tales

January 1, 2001

Several recent "Waypoints" have drawn unusually high levels of reader responses.

A number of readers commented on last month's column titled " On Private Wings," where I compared the joys of flying yourself to the travails of modern airline travel. In his comments, an airline captain agreed that general aviation flying is far more rewarding than his day job. He and his family fly their Cessna 180 every chance they get—even forgoing free airline seats because the hassle of sitting in the back just isn't worth it, he says.

By now, you may have heard about yet another hazard of airline flying. As if recycled air, luggage falling out of the overheads, out-of-control cabin carts, and enraged passengers are not enough, there is a new problem awaiting the airline passenger: flying pigs. Yes, it's true. Pigs do fly—at least on US Airways. It seems the counter agents allowed the supposedly "therapeutic companion pet" on board the airliner with two passengers for a flight from Philadelphia to Seattle. According to The Associated Press, the pig occupied an entire row of first class, undoubtedly snapping up its full share of peanuts and maybe even free drinks.

Apparently things went reasonably well until the airplane landed at Seattle. Something (perhaps the crew's landing?) set the porker off, and it went nuts during the taxi to the gate, supposedly running loose through the aircraft, squealing loudly, and even trying to get into the cockpit. AP quotes an airline internal report as stating: "Many people on board the aircraft were quite upset that there was a large, uncontrollable pig on board, especially those in the first-class cabin." As if the folks in coach would somehow find it less alarming that a pig was barreling up and down the aisle.

The days of smoking on airliners is long gone, but the next time you check in at a gate, be prepared to answer a new question: porcine or nonporcine? And if you ordered a kosher meal—well, your seat assignment may have just gotten more complicated.

Of course, animal problems are not exclusive to the airlines. A recent close encounter with a hog of another type caused me to query the AOPA Air Safety Foundation accident database to find out how often airplanes are felled by four-legged or two-winged friends. According to the database, which is derived from NTSB accident reports, an encounter with a bird or animal caused 213 general aviation accidents over the past 16 years. It doesn't seem like much of a danger, but remember that the NTSB only reports on accidents. The agency defines an accident as when "any person suffers death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft receives substantial damage." Many more aircraft/animal encounters are only incidents, but they can be scary nonetheless.

In my case, the hog was a groundhog—a baby one. The little fellow was parked right on the center stripe of Runway 31 at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Just as I landed, my father, in the right seat, pointed the creature out to me. I swerved to miss the groundhog on the rollout. He appeared not to notice 3,500 pounds of airplane and a dangerously whirling propeller buzz by him. I alerted the tower controller, who immediately stopped operations on the runway while a ground crew dispatched the critter to parts unknown.

The groundhog was the third and least dangerous encounter I've had with animals on a runway. A number of years ago I nearly filleted a turkey while taking off from Culpeper, Virginia, in a Cessna Cutlass. The turkey came crashing out of the weeds along the runway and flew just in front of the propeller as I added power for takeoff. More recently, I had to execute a go-around at Greenville, Pennsylvania, when a deer bounded onto the runway as I was in the landing flare. A second deer stood alongside the runway watching. Were they playing chicken? Was it part of some deer fraternity initiation?

Sometimes pilots and animals are not so lucky. Last summer a Canadair Challenger struck a deer as the business jet was taking off from East Hampton, New York. The aircraft continued its flight, but a landing door was damaged. No word on the deer's fate. Pete Bedell, formerly our technical editor and now a first officer for a commuter airline, struck a deer while he was doing solo landing practice as a student pilot. It was night and he was operating from Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland—a Washington, D.C., suburb. The airport is surrounded by residential and commercial development, so you might not expect to find deer strolling around. Nonetheless, the doe jumped onto the runway just as Bedell was beginning his takeoff roll. The deer hit the right main landing gear, popping the aircraft into the air. Bedell landed safely on the remaining runway. The impact caused minimal damage to the tough Cessna Skyhawk, but unfortunately the deer was DOR—dead on the runway. You can reduce your chances of encountering fauna on a dark, deserted runway by making a low pass before landing.

The FAA has recently placed renewed emphasis on reducing the number of runway incursions. Additional vigilance on the part of pilots, controllers, and ground crews is certainly needed to prevent textbook runway accidents. But remember that in some cases the cause of the accident can't read the textbooks, so let's be careful out there.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.