I fondly remember many memorable flights with my dad when I was a little boy. No matter what the circumstance, he always seemed to be as cool as a cucumber. He always made sure that anyone in the airplane felt that everything was going to be OK.
That taught me a very valuable lesson. As important as it is to keep calm and fly the airplane, it is just as important to make your passengers as comfortable and calm as possible. I have had a few occasions when this lesson was well remembered, but none as poignant as a recent flight with my own little girl.
My dad started flying not long after he returned from World War II. In the early 1960s he bought a ranch in southern Maryland and built a runway in one of the fields. On most weekends airplanes from all over would land on our ranch to visit and give rides. I remember flying on my dad’s lap from our ranch out over the Potomac River with his words ringing in my small ears, “It’s your airplane.”
I got my private certificate as a teenager and then obtained instrument, commercial, multiengine, and commercial seaplane ratings.
On December 28, 2008, I returned the favor to my 9-year-old daughter. Mara—named after my dad, Marvin— really enjoys flying. Mara and I were on our way home after breakfast at Okeechobee Airport just north of Lake Okeechobee in our 1960 Focke-Wulf P.149D.
I had been looking for a warbird project and happened to meet a gentleman visiting from Bremen, Germany. He had a tank of an airplane that he just got straight out of the Luftwaffe. After some hard negotiating, the deal was complete. All that was left was the long and very expensive renovation process.
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The aircraft is a true Focke-Wulf—number 186 out of only 190 ever built. It was born on April 11, 1960, and went into service with the Luftwaffe as a trainer at that time under Luftwaffe registry #91-64. It was used to train air combat maneuvers, aerobatics, and tolerance to Gs until 1990, when its operation moved to the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) Aero Club. After I purchased it on January 18, 2002, it was crated and shipped to North Florida, where it was put together, and I flew it to my home base in Wellington. After I got it home the airplane was completely dismantled for a full renovation. I have won four national awards with this airplane, plus other awards, since I completed its renovation. People from as far as Germany have come to see it.
On that lunch flight, shortly after takeoff, while climbing out over the lake toward our home just west of Palm Beach, it happened. I first thought that a few airplanes flying in formation were headed right toward us, but when I dropped the nose and got a better look I saw that they were birds. Big birds! There were about four or five of them. They were no ordinary birds. These birds had wingspans of at least four to five feet.
The first bird just missed the top right side of the prop arc, the second actually skimmed the top of the canopy, and the third and final unlucky brother of the air slammed head-on into the Focke-Wulf’s left wing. We were passing through 1,200 feet out over the lake at the time. After it happened I was actually looking for a place on the beach to put her down if I had to. The impact and the sound were, well, attention-getting. If the Focke-Wulf factory were still in business I would be sending them a thank-you note.
I was proud of Mara. She calmly looked over to me and asked, “Daddy, are we going to be OK?” I said, in the best imitation of my dad that I could muster, “Absolutely,” and she did not say a single word all the way home. She could see I was preoccupied, but my attitude and confidence (as far as she was concerned) helped keep her calm. I believe she was cooler than most pilots would have been. I know she was cooler than I would have been at her age. I leveled off and did a complete assessment to determine what I did (or did not) have. The many flights with my dad flashed through my mind and for an instant I was that little boy once again. Then, almost like a warm blanket, a calmness came over me that I can’t explain. My life and all the flights with my dad all seemed to fit. This was my chance to put to task the lessons he taught me those many years ago.
After I determined that there was no fuel-tank rupture (the impact was outboard of the tanks) and I still had complete control, I gained altitude and headed home while keeping a landing site or airport in view. Surprisingly, the airplane still handled great. The airplane pulled to the left, but I guess because of my adrenaline I didn’t notice. I always fly with my checklist strapped to my knee, so I went through all of the emergency procedures I could find, but nothing was in there about a bird strike. The flight home was short—although it didn’t feel that way—and uneventful. My blood pressure didn’t rise until after landing, when I got out and saw the damage. Mara said, “Daddy, do you think the bird is OK?”
It’s strange how things from your past, long thought to be forgotten, come back just when needed. The lessons I learned from my father along with the words of every flight instructor I ever had came back: “Fly the airplane.” After that, “Keep calm or at least pretend that you are.” And last, but every bit as important, remember the trust that your passengers have put in you, and reassure them that everything is going to be OK.
Ernie L. Green, AOPA 916129, lives in South Florida with his two daughters. He holds commercial, instrument, multiengine, and seaplane ratings. Illustration by Sarah Hanson.