Never Again

A run of gulls

March 1, 2004

Greg, an A&P specializing in sheet-metal work, laid the straight edge on the rivet line and said, "The spar's been pushed back about a quarter of an inch." He turned off the lights in the hangar and then set a floor lamp to cast low lighting across the top of the left wing of my Cessna 172. "You have definite wrinkles aft along the rib."

The damage to the aircraft coincided with the return of smelt fishing to rivers in the Pacific Northwest. The anticipation of a strong run caused many an old-timer in the Portland, Oregon, area to muse of past migrations that contained "more smelt than water" and where a "single dip produced the day's limit."

The best time for dip netting is toward evening when smelt seek the shoreline for protection from predators. I found an excellent stretch of bank adjacent to the airport at Woodland State, situated on the Lewis River in Washington. A short hop from Aurora State Airport in Oregon, where I hangar my airplane, to Woodland was decidedly more appealing than trying to drive across town and navigate through Portland traffic. I stowed a smelt dipping net with its telescoping 12-foot-long pole into my Cessna 172, along with a pair of chest waders and a bucket prominently marked with the 10-pound line that constitutes a day's limit.

The short cross-country flight to Woodland State Airport for my evening of dip netting took me on a direct northward course from Aurora State up and over the western hills of downtown Portland. Both the north-south and east-west commuter corridors were choked with traffic.

The Lewis River flows into the Columbia River from the northwest and would be my principle landmark for finding Woodland State Airport, situated about nine miles upstream. It is surrounded by prominent references including an interstate highway, the river, the community, and a bowl of high ground on all sides but to the west.

I located the mouth of the Lewis and got my first indication that fishing should be good. Sea gulls were everywhere, circling in disorganized groups low over the surface of the river.

After landing on Runway 32 and parking on the grass ramp at Woodland, I pulled on waders, put the net together, and walked to the river's edge. My first dip produced a fish. My second dip resulted in three. After that I quit counting as it just got better and better. In quick fashion I had my limit of 10 pounds.

Since the wind had shifted to favor departure to the south, I elected to depart Runway 14. The high ground just south of the runway is not typically a factor at Woodland, but it is intimidating. My departure time was just after sundown. For my return I had intended to fly the reverse course back to Aurora State. My pleasure in the flight rapidly deteriorated as I climbed through 800 feet. Without warning, a small flock of sea gulls appeared ahead, to the left, and slightly below the aircraft. Instinctively, I applied some back-pressure to the yoke to raise the nose to climb over the birds. To my amazement another group of 10 to 15 sea gulls appeared silhouetted against the foothills in the distance. They were directly in front of and slightly below the aircraft.

My 110-mph airspeed felt much faster as the birds passed behind the aircraft as quickly as they appeared. Not only were we passing each other at a great rate, but also they were starting to look decidedly larger at close range. My response to the second encounter was much like the first: I pulled back on the yoke again. The maneuver again carried me beyond the birds to apparent safety.

I was left to wonder, though, if that successful avoidance of a collision was due more to the skill of the birds than to my efforts. The birds' first reaction in the face of a possible collision was to draw their wings in tight to the body, resulting in what appeared to be severely uncoordinated flight. A high percentage of times the birds dived, often right in front of the aircraft.

My second aggressive climb in less than a few seconds put me into a mother lode of sea gulls. In a fleeting moment came the realization that there were probably several hundred sea gulls at and above my altitude. They were likely returning upriver from the Columbia to overnight on sandbars along the Lewis.

My priority was to maneuver to keep birds out of the prop and cockpit. Still, I crouched my head and shoulders below the profile of the panel while retaining a view of the birds ahead and above.

Only one bird looked a likely candidate for dying inside my cockpit. I put in hard right aileron and rudder. The aircraft rolled and yawed hard to the right, but it was too late to miss the bird. There was an almighty bang accompanied by severe shudder from the airplane. The Cessna continued to roll to the right with a slight nose-down attitude. I pulled off some throttle and put it in a left turn to level the wings and then pitched for level attitude. To my great relief the Cessna responded to the control inputs and settled into level flight.

I was able to see the tail and lower portion of the wings from the cockpit. No apparent damage was visible in those areas. I could also inspect the inboard portion of the leading edges, but again there was no apparent damage.

I had at some stage during the initial ordeal punched the "nearest" button on the GPS, which located Scappoose as the closest airport at about six miles to the southwest. The aircraft was performing well in straight and level, albeit at below cruise airspeed. I decided to check maneuverability while I had nearly 1,200 feet of air under me. I executed a standard-rate turn to both the left and the right; both proved normal. Furthermore, the airplane was flying normally at 100 mph. To test slow flight I slowly pulled back power to 1,700 rpm — the airplane also performed normally at 80 mph.

The approach and night landing were normal and uneventful. I retrieved the flashlight out of the cockpit and started a thorough inspection of the airplane. A band of sea gull blood smeared from the top of the leading edge of the left outboard portion of the wing to the center aileron hinge. The line was preceded by a depression about the size of a turkey platter in the skin on the upper part of the forward portion of the wing. The depression was squarely over a nose rib, which had been crushed down and back into the first wing spar. The dent extended laterally, forming a dished area on both sides of the rib.

Reflection on my collision has caused me to rethink the events for lessons to be learned. For starters, sea gulls were in the vicinity on my arrival. Extra vigilance on departure was clearly warranted. Second, sea gulls feed actively during the day, working low over the water. However, gulls transit to a suitable location to raft up or roost during the night. Transiting is usually done in flocks at between 500 and 1,000 feet agl, normally around dusk. Never again will I spend any unnecessary time below 1,000 feet over a body of water when gulls are present, certainly never in the failing light that precedes darkness.

Bruce L. Gibbins, AOPA 1149876, is an instrument-rated private pilot with 990 hours flight time in 15 years.

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