Proficient Pilot

Critters

February 1, 2012

Barry SchiffWhenever receiving my new copy of Plane and Pilot, I almost always flip first to the last page of the magazine for my visit with Budd Davisson, one of my favorite aviation writers (and a regular contributor to Flight Training magazine). He always seems to touch my aviation soul and sensitivity in a way that few writers can. Last September he wrote a delightful piece about when a wily coyote had staked out territory on a runway and forced significant arrival and departure delays at the busiest single-runway airport in the country.

In addition to putting a smile on my face, Davisson’s column reminded me of my general aviation flying in Africa, a place where wildlife encounters can affect aviation operations perhaps more frequently and dramatically than anywhere else. When planning to land at the dirt strip serving the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, for example, I had been cautioned to be alert for a family of warthogs living in the bush adjacent to the runway. This necessitated making a low pass that served the dual purpose of ensuring that the warthogs weren’t strolling on the runway and to alert someone at the nearby lodge to pick us up at the “airport.” This obviously is not an inconvenience. What red-blooded pilot could possibly object to making a high-speed, low-level pass?

The warthogs were there, as if on cue, but the ugly creatures thankfully scurried away.

Clearing a runway of four-legged critters usually requires only a noisy, low pass, but when clearing impala, it is important not to split the herd. Otherwise, the ewes and rams might cross and re-cross the runway in a confused attempt to reestablish the herd. You also must keep a wary eye on the sidelines when approaching to land. The pilot of a Cessna 414 once failed to adequately inspect the strip at MalaMala and paid the price by ramming a giraffe that had begun loping across the runway just as he was about to touch down. His right wing sheared outboard of the nacelle, and the animal did not fare well either.

Like the coyote in Davisson’s column, some animals do not scare off easily. While once approaching a landing strip inside Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, I made a low pass in a Piper Arrow to chase away a grazing gnu (wildebeest). The ungainly looking antelope, however, was undaunted by my sudden intrusion. As I circled the strip for another pass, a new gnu came into view, and two gnus on a runway are bad news. (Sorry. I couldn’t help that.) Fortunately, the animals soon sauntered off and abdicated the runway.

When navigating in certain parts of Africa, the competition for airspace can be ferocious. The congestion is not caused by other aircraft. Rather, there are squadrons of birds so great in number that they darken the sky. Hooded vultures, hammerkops, laughing doves, pintailed whydahs, and slate-colored boubous can appear out of nowhere with no respect for rights of way.

Birds, of course, can be a problem anywhere. There often are so many large, predatory birds in the vicinity of Salalah, Oman, that the approach plate for that airport contains a permanent warning. Bird activity at Comox, British Columbia, can be particularly intense when ceilings are low. The birds apparently recognize the hazards of flying in foul weather and ground themselves accordingly. This is more than can be said about some pilots.

Africa is an entomologist’s delight. Flying bugs there can be larger than gas caps, and colliding with one qualifies as a midair collision. Flying beetles can be so massive that a saddle and a type rating are needed to fly one. I won’t comment on the size of mosquitoes in Africa except to say that they can drink morning tea faster than we can. It also pays to bring along a metal fly swatter because using a plastic model or a rolled-up newspaper only gives some of these insects renewed confidence.

The problems created by the animal kingdom do not necessarily end after landing. You never know what sort of creature might greet you upon opening the cabin door, which is why it pays to carry plenty of food and water. You never know how long you might have to remain on board.

Unanticipated difficulties also result from leaving your airplane parked unattended at an unfenced strip. Hyenas, for example, love to chew on—and will destroy—rubber deicing boots. Gnus (not another joke) love to chomp on fiberglass wing tips. Lions have been known to enjoy chewing on an aircraft tire. Playful antelopes can perforate aluminum panels with their horns, and water buffalo can convert an airplane to a heap of trash in less than a minute.

Some insects can build nests in an airplane so fast that thorough preflight inspections are mandatory even following a short ground stop.

In certain parts of the world, pilots also know that Snakes on a Plane can be far more horrific than just the title of a movie.

Two bizarre references to how the animal kingdom impacts aeronautical planning involve a pair of notams I have been given. The first was when destined for an airport in central Africa. It read, “Caution. Braking action nil account worms on the runway.” The second notam applied to a grass runway in New Zealand. It stated matter of factly, “Caution. Braking action nil account sheep.” I had to think about that one.

Barry Schiff has many years of experience as an experimental test pilot in light airplanes. Visit the author’s website.