Never Again Online: Deer incursion

May 1, 2003

It was a clear, calm spring evening as we returned home from Hummel Field in Saluda, Virginia, after dinner. You could see every star in the sky and every light on the ground. Our Beechcraft Musketeer was treating us to quite a show as we turned southward to admire the beautiful lights of Richmond, Virginia. We set a course for Louisa County/Freeman Field in Virginia, our home base.

We checked Louisa airport's automated weather observation system (AWOS) 20 miles out, called over unicom at 15 miles out, and began our descent for landing to Runway 9. As we approached the pattern, we did our before-landing checks and activated the runway lights. Then our fun began.

About five feet from touchdown, I noticed a doe about 50 yards ahead just to the right of centerline. I applied immediate full power to execute the go-around. The airplane began to climb and accelerate. We had no problem avoiding the deer in the distance. What we did not know, however, was that she had other family members with her on her evening stroll. They were off to the left side of the runway, still in the grass, lagging behind. Two to three seconds after applying power I noticed a light-colored streak just outside the left side of the airplane. We must have been at least 10 feet in the air by then and still accelerating. Then, to our horror, we felt a stiff jolt to the tail, as we hit the fleeing animal. After a solemn "uh-oh" uttered by the pilot, there was silence in the cabin. Now, at least 15 feet in the air and with half of the runway behind us, I heard this faint voice from somewhere ask, "Are we all right?" Again there was total silence. At that point, I just did not have an answer.

After the impact, the mighty Musketeer continued to fly with no erratic behavior. Seeing nothing in front of me but darkness and amber runway lights turning to red, I was committed to go around. As we climbed out, I noticed the nose pitching up a little higher than I was comfortable with. Fearing a departure stall, I attempted to push the nose down only to discover that the stabilator was jammed. Without hesitation, I went for the trim wheel. As I rolled the trim wheel forward, the airplane began to pitch up even higher. Scanning the airspeed indicator, my heart started off to the races as the needle dwindled to 55 knots. Instinct told me that if trimming forward made the nose climb, then I should trim backward and do it fast! After a few more rapid pitty pats of my old ticker, the nose finally began to settle down to a nice 400-to-500-fpm climb on the vertical speed indicator.

In the fervor of the moment, I did not realize that the trim tab, which runs the entire length of the stabilator, was acting as a mini elevator. With the stabilator locked in a fixed position from the impact, the trim tab was giving opposite results of what it would in normal operations, since the stabilator could not react to the trim tab. Fortunately, it didn't take long to figure out what I needed to do to fix it.

I climbed straight out to 500 ft agl and gently rolled left, not wanting to get too far from the field. I also eased the power back to about 2,200 rpm, not wanting to blast the tail any more than necessary. I remember looking back and seeing a large dent on the left outboard leading edge of the stabilator as the strobes flashed, revealing the damage. I nursed the Musketeer around the pattern a couple of times while assessing what I had left back there. I still had rudder and aileron control, so turns were no problem. Fore and aft yoke movement, though, was just not there and I didn't want to force it. I continued to play with the stabilator trim, and I felt good about a safe landing using only the trim wheel for pitch control. I explained the situation and my intentions to my passengers and requested they reposition their seats, snug their seat belts, and stow loose objects on the floor.

I called Richmond Approach and declared an emergency so that rescue equipment could get into place. We continued to circle for about 20 minutes. It was during that time that I began having thoughts like, "OK, you're responsible for the lives of these people. Don't botch it up." I was later reassured that my prayers were not the only ones offered. My wife, the flying veteran she is, was a big help in this situation. She joked, laughed, and carried on through the whole ordeal as if it were all routine — she didn't give our guests any time to panic. Then there was the comfort of having Richmond Approach on hand for guidance. They asked how many souls and fuel were on board, and if we could jettison fuel.

The first rescue vehicle on site checked the runway and to our surprise found that the unfortunate deer was still on the runway. They repositioned him to the side and checked for any other deer still hanging around looking to avenge their lost loved one. Somehow I was able to regain limited fore and aft yoke movement. The stabilator had righted itself somewhat from its cocked position after the impact. I was able to breathe just a little bit easier after that.

When everyone was in place on the ground, Richmond Approach gave us the OK to land. Louisa airport's AWOS revealed a 4-kt direct crosswind from the south. We set up on a long, gradual, final approach for Runway 9 for the second time that night. I had already determined to use the entire runway and just let the airspeed gradually dissipate on its own. The landing turned out well and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. I turned off at the taxiway and taxied to where all the fire trucks were standing by.

When I saw the damage to the right side of the fuselage caused by the impact to the left side of the stabilator, I could hardly believe my eyes. I guess it was a good thing I couldn't see it from my seat. I may not have been so patient about putting it on the ground.

The next day we gave our report to the FAA over the telephone. Two FAA investigators were on the scene promptly that morning to inspect the aircraft and complete their report. They found no problem with my competency and credentials, and they determined the event to be an accident rather than an incident because of the extensive damage to the aircraft.

A few days later I also received a questionnaire from the NTSB to complete. One of the routine questions on the form was, "How could this accident have been prevented?" After some thorough meditation on this question, I thought maybe perimeter fencing or scare devices should be installed. Or pilots could buzz the field prior to landing. In addition, we could post some "Deer Crossing" signs at the ends of the runways to alert unaware pilots of the impending danger.

In all seriousness, though, I will never again land at a lonely, unattended airport at night without first making a loud low pass, leaving plenty of space between us and the ground just in case there might be another young buck out there.

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Daniel E. Garriques Sr., AOPA 1176361, is a maintenance materials coordinator and owns a Beechcraft Musketeer. He is a private pilot with 1,000 hours and 100 hours of gyroplane time.


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Posted Thursday, May 08, 2003 1:46:15 PM