Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight
There are as many as 30 million deer in the United States, and they seem to have an innate fondness for hanging around airports--and getting in the way of airplanes. Although bird strikes occur more frequently and tend to garner more pilot concern, slamming into a 200-pound whitetail is far more likely to cripple an aircraft.
On February 1, 2006, a Cessna 172 collided with a deer while attempting to land at Bessemer Airport in Bessemer, Alabama. Concluding a three-hour nighttime flight from Fayetteville, Arkansas, the pilot entered the traffic pattern for Bessemer's Runway 5 at 8:45 p.m. "About 10 feet above the ground, two deer came into the landing light from the left," stated the pilot. "I proceeded to go around. As I started to pull up and climb, the left main gear contacted one of the deer. I continued the climb to a safe altitude and cleaned up the aircraft. I looked outside to inspect the left main gear to find it severely damaged."
The pilot diverted to Birmingham International Airport. He touched down on the right main gear and held the airplane off the ground as long as possible. When the left wing and stabilizer eventually contacted the pavement, the aircraft veered off the left side of the runway before coming to a stop. The airplane was substantially damaged.
According to the FAA's National Wildlife Strike Database, 796 pilots have reported deer strikes since 1990--nearly 50 a year on average. The unreported number is probably much higher. And while accidents related to wildlife are rarely fatal to pilots or passengers (nine deaths since 1990), they can result in serious injury and substantial aircraft damage.
What can pilots do to decrease the risk? First, know where the hazards are greatest. The FAA's Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) lists warnings about deer populations in the vicinity of airports. Second, know when the risk is highest. Deer activity peaks over the next couple of months, during the fall rutting season. The animals tend to be most active around dusk and after dark--when they're hardest to see.
Remain vigilant for deer and other wildlife during takeoff and landing. Many pilots--especially students--tend to lock their focus on the runway centerline. Remember to scan the edges as well. Also keep in mind that bright landing lights and droning engines often mesmerize deer.
If you do come in contact with deer or other wildlife, first and foremost maintain control. Bring the airplane to a controlled stop or, if airborne, stabilize the aircraft and assess the damage. The Cessna pilot maintained composure, followed textbook emergency procedures, and walked away from the aircraft uninjured.
An aviation technical writer with the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Carl Peterson creates interactive courses and other safety education materials for the aviation community. He has been flying since 1989.
By Carl Peterson