Never Again Online: Bird strike on landing

April 3, 2008

Every Tuesday, rain or shine, I fly my Piper Lance to Columbia, South Carolina, for business. On rare cases, I drive when the airplane is in the shop or the ceilings are too low; it’s only 100 miles each way, but the flight is a relaxing way to start and end my day. It also helps me stay proficient with my flying skills.

The flight had become so routine that I have distances and altitudes calculated so I know exactly when to descend. I know all the radio frequencies, as well as the airport personnel at the nontowered airport. I am regular Tuesday customer.

This particular day was beautiful with VFR weather, and I had filed for flight following. Upon approaching the airport from my step-down altitude, I canceled flight following. Columbia Approach reported no other aircraft in the area, and I called the airport (Columbia Downtown) and revealed my intensions. While the wind was calm, prior traffic that day was using Runway 31, and I elected to not buck the system; Runway 13 would have been a straight-in approach for me. I began my downwind approach, throttled back, raised the nose, and dropped the gear, the usual checklist stuff. Everything was smooth and I turned base, then to final.

The runway at Columbia Downtown is just about a mile long, but I like to practice landing my bird in a simulated short-field scenario. I think it’s good practice, and it takes more skill to do so. It also takes the humdrum out of landing at a very familiar airport. At two notches of flaps and an 80-knot approach speed, this was going to be a great short-field landing.

About a quarter of a mile from the threshold, I noticed a large flock of pigeons take off between the taxiway and the runway. They flew toward the runway and appeared to hover there. I assumed they were flying away from me, since the airplane is so loud, and believed the noise was why the birds took off in the first place. I continued my approach toward the threshold and rechecked my settings. Three green, the landing gear was down and locked.

As I looked back up, I now realized why the pigeons had appeared to hover. They were circling, and they had decided to circle directly into my flight path. I gently pulled up, but the airplane was ready to land and the birds were nearly on top of me. I was now in the predicament of getting a bird strike, by not one, but perhaps a dozen pigeons or more! I pulled up significantly, hoping they would see me and dive.

As I tried this maneuver, I heard something that I only hear when I do my flight review. The stall warning was blaring, continuously, and the right wing began to drop. My effort to ace the landing had created a low approach speed, and the bird strike distraction was about to prove more ominous than a broken windshield. I pushed the yoke forward, birds going everywhere, the stall horn still blaring, and the airport coming up awfully fast.

I pushed more, thinking that I would just ram the gear through the wings and hopefully live to tell the tale. But nothing is better than good flight training. My mind raced about what to do, birds behind, airport in front, and I jammed the throttle and prop full forward. The airplane was mushy, and as I pushed down more on the yoke to keep the airspeed up, the added energy from the prop silenced the stall warning horn. I waited for a bone-jarring impact. The ground was coming up fast, but I could see my forward speed was increasing. I pulled back, slightly, on the mushy yoke. The airplane began to level out and I picked up more speed—my struts and wings would be saved today.

Shaken, I continued down the runway and did a go-around. The birds were still in the area but not over the runway on my second approach. After landing, I notified the airport manager, who informed me that geese were seen earlier that morning as well. I inspected my airplane that afternoon before my return flight and noticed a crunch spot on my cowling. Not there when I took off this morning, I thought.

So what did I learn from this near miss? First, birds are unpredictable; that’s why there is the term “bird-brained.” Stay away from them, and don’t continue the approach in the hope that they will fly away from you. Second, if not making a normal approach (in this scenario, I was trying to do a short-field landing), and something is not perfect, go around. Low and slow can be killers.

Third, have a plan B. In other circumstances, I would have landed the opposite direction and away from the birds. In fact, after my near-miss, the airport recommended aircraft land from this direction until the birds left. Fourth, is to always report things that make flying around an airport unsafe to the airport manager. Had I just walked away with a tremor I would have not known about the geese, and the manager not known about the birds. The department of natural resources was called in afterward to assess and alleviate the problem.

E-mail the author at fleming@db-med.com.