Never Again

Hawk missile

April 1, 2007

It was a cool, spring desert morning at Casa Grande Municipal Airport, a nontowered field located approximately 50 nm south of Phoenix.

I was about to embark on the last leg of my first cross-country flight in my newly purchased 1973 Beechcraft Baron.

The first three legs of my four-leg trip from Bartow, Florida, to Camarillo, California, had been flawless. The avionics had worked perfectly, including the older Century III autopilot and the Garmin GNS 430. I had noticed that the windshield was more crazed than I had expected, and it would probably be wise to replace it sometime soon.

There was not a cloud in the sky as I checked the windsock, completed the runup, and took off. The aircraft was climbing nicely at 130 knots indicated and 1,000 feet per minute.

At about 3,500 feet I noticed a bird at my one o'clock position, maybe 150 feet away. Then, seconds later, a bird struck and shattered the windshield. I felt a blinding punch in my right eye. The windshield was totally gone. My prescription bifocal sunglasses were gone. My headset was gone. My baseball cap was gone. The vision in my right eye was gone, and I felt my eye swell up instantly.

I thought the aircraft was going to crash or blow up. The noise was unbelievably loud and the whole scene disconcerting.

I leveled the aircraft and reduced power to lessen the wind and noise in the cabin. All I could think about was to fly the airplane and get it on the ground as soon as possible. I quickly turned the aircraft back toward the airport.

My left eye's uncorrected vision was not very good. I wanted to call someone on the emergency frequency in case I needed vectors to the airport. I found my headset on the floor and put it on. The radio was still set to the Casa Grande Unicom, and I quickly announced my predicament and requested that all traffic clear the area as I had suffered a bird strike and was returning to land. I had to move my head within 6 inches of the Garmin 430 to change the frequency to 121.5 MHz.

I remember transmitting a confusing Mayday. Albuquerque Center responded, but I could hardly hear anything the controller said — the noise in the cabin was too loud. I explained I had been hit by a bird, had an eye injury, and planned to return to Casa Grande Municipal. I asked to have an ambulance ready. At the controller's almost inaudible request, I repeated my N number and then decided to ignore the radio and focus on getting to the airport.

Meanwhile, the glareshield had totally blocked my forward view. I ripped it from its remaining attachments and pushed it out the front window. I then engaged the autopilot to hold the aircraft steady while I fiddled with the GPS. I plugged the Casa Grande airport identifier into the GPS, disconnected the autopilot, and tried to follow the magenta line on the GPS screen back to the airport. I could barely see out the window with my left eye, but I kept searching for the airport.

The instrument gauges were tough to see. I focused primarily on the airspeed gauge and kept the airplane at 100 knots. I felt my face and was happy to note that the amount of blood coming off on my hand was relatively small. I could feel the swollen eye and a few cuts and was optimistic about getting down without going into shock. If I really tried hard I could open my right eye and see just a little light. This built my confidence further.

As the GPS' automatic zoom feature began to work and the runways came into view on the screen, I realized I was very close to the airport. It had been probably four or five minutes since the bird strike. I looked out the window and could make out Runway 23 to my left.

I had lost altitude gradually without noticing it and now I was perfectly positioned on a short base. I turned final, reduced power, and put the gear and flaps down. After landing, I taxied to the terminal, shut down the airplane, and quickly exited the aircraft.

With my sweatshirt covering my eye I walked back into the terminal and lay down on a couch at the FBO. The paramedics came quickly — they were with the air ambulance company based on the field. About 10 minutes later the ambulance arrived to take me to Banner Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix. I was released the next day. My eye was still swollen shut, but the doctors promised it would heal.

My friend picked me up at Phoenix Deer Valley Airport in his Beechcraft B200 King Air and flew me back to Camarillo. I asked him about the durability of the King Air's windshield before I fell asleep on the flight back to Camarillo.

The guys at the FBO in Casa Grande had taken pictures of the aircraft's damage and the bird resting on the hat shelf in the back of the cabin. It was a 4-pound red-tailed hawk. Only two small 2-inch pieces of the windshield remained in both bottom corners.

I credit the safe landing to lots of luck. But I also had seen an aircraft after it had been in a similar incident; the pilot had landed that airplane safely, so I knew it could be done. I was lucky that the windshield exploded outward. Although I did not see the airplane immediately after the accident, I was told there were only a few small shards inside the cabin.

What did I learn?

Fly the airplane. Keep a spare set of eyeglasses on board, just in case.

I am not sure if the bird I had seen during climbout was the hawk that hit my windshield. But the next time I see a bird out the aircraft's windshield I won't hesitate to pull up; birds evidently have a tendency to dive when they see an aircraft (see " Bird Strike!" August 2005 Pilot).

Gary M. Goltz, AOPA 1225545, is a 1,000-hour private pilot with single- and multiengine instrument ratings. He has owned several Beechcraft Baron models, a Mooney M20E, and a North American T28 Trojan. Just prior to the incident Goltz completed initial Beechcraft B200 King Air training.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to neveragain@aopa.org or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.