Landing on the Harbor Visual Runway 29 Approach into KPWM can be a 95-second joy ride if the time of day and the time of year are just right. For us, that flight, it was.
I flew the crowded 50-seat regional jet in a descending arc, starting at Elizabeth City, Maine. We traveled north along the Maine coast past the airport, giving the passengers views of the cobalt blue Casco Bay and the mossy green Ram and Peaks Islands, before we banked left and headed south along the coast, over the narrow, inky blue Portland Harbor.
“Glorious,” crowed the captain.
“Birds,” was my reply. I pointed to a small flock of large, brown waterfowl taking wing from the run-up area of Runway 29 off my starboard side.
“They’ll be gone before you cross the fence,” he assured me.
Cleared to land, I banked right into a smooth intercept of the localizer needle. Gliding over the airport perimeter, I let the jet drift left of the runway center line.
“What are you doing? Center line!”
“Birds,” I replied, just as three big birds arrowed straight for us. I evaded two before crossing the numbers. I swung back toward center line. I heard a resounding “THUNK.”
“Did you hear that?” I asked the captain. I made the landing zone and touched down safely.
“Loud as the sun is bright. I just hope it didn’t hit a passenger window.”
At the gate, a khaki-uniformed officer pushed past the last exiting passenger and into our flight deck doorway, Park Service badge in hand.
“How can I help you, sir?” asked the captain.
“You hit a bird!” said the officer.
“We missed two others,” I offered.
He didn’t laugh. “You hit a protected species! I saw it.”
We all deplaned and conducted an inspection of the right side of the jet. Surprisingly, the fuselage, the wing, and even the motor mount and engine intake were clear of feathers or any other evidence of the encounter. So we re-inspected the entire plane. Nothing. No sign of damage or a bird strike anywhere.
“You’ll have to fill out paperwork,” he told us.
“No, sir,” answered my captain. “No feathers, no blood, no paperwork.”
Over the radio, the call from a runway inspection vehicle sent to look for a carcass announced that no dead bird was present. We bid the officer adieu and made a beeline for lobster rolls.
We were lucky. Even though a witness saw a bird strike, even though we heard something collide with the jet, we were able to avoid paperwork because of the absence of evidence.
One reporter to the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System felt compelled to file a NASA report because no one believed his bird strike event, also due to the absence of evidence.
The pilot, an instructor, was on a training flight with two students onboard a PA-34 Turbo Seneca II. Upon turning left downwind for their runway, the instructor and the student pilot both heard a loud bang and saw a large black object pass across their windscreen. Moments later, the nose baggage door departed the aircraft and also flew over their windscreen. The aircraft became difficult to control, so the instructor took command of the controls. He also reported the bird strike to Tower. He landed the airplane successfully.
Back at their flight school, an FAA agent met with the trio. The agent claimed that a bird strike had not occurred because no debris was evident.
The lessons here are unfortunate but important. First, the FAA doesn’t always give the pilot the benefit of the doubt. In this case the agent chose to ignore the statements of three witnesses in the cockpit. Second, when in doubt, fill it out — a NASA form, that is.
In another NASA report, a GA aircraft departed KPHF at night. Upon rotation, the pilot reported hearing a loud thump under the fuselage. Thinking it might have been a bird or animal strike, he reported it to the Tower and requested a low pass for a gear check. Tower confirmed three gear down. The pilot requested and made a successful approach and landing. On the ground, he inspected the airplane, determined it airworthy and departed for his original destination.
The next day, the pilot discovered that a cowl flap door was missing. In his report, he surmised that the hinge pin for the door came loose due to the animal or bird strike. What he also discovered was that the missing cowl flap door was a necessary item for flight on that particular aircraft. In other words, the airplane was technically not airworthy without it. The pilot had inadvertently violated FARs by departing KPHF after the incident.
Animals and birds seem to like airport environments as much as pilots. The NASA reporting system lists more than 640 animal vs. aircraft incidents.
Flying into an animal or bird can be momentarily unnerving. In a split second you go from normal to emergency operations, not because of something you did or a mechanical failure.
Suddenly you’ve got to fly AND do damage assessment. And from the cockpit, you can’t see your entire aircraft, so you may be blind to what might be bent, broken or about to be. You’ve got to figure out quickly if one of those three is going to cause you trouble getting back on the ground or harm you. Oh, and you probably just killed something. How pilots handle their nerves in this situation largely determines the outcome of their animal or bird strike event.
In one NASA report, a King Air pilot landed at a private, paved ranch strip to pick up his hunting clients. While he loaded them and their game on board, a ranch hand drove the runway to inspect and clear it of animals. The pilot then took the runway and began his takeoff roll. At about 85 knots, he saw animals ahead on the runway and chose to attempt lift off rather than abort the takeoff.
He got the plane airborne. After rotation and before gear retraction, he felt a thud on the left side of the aircraft. An instrument scan revealed no anomalies, the aircraft remained stable and the gear retracted normally, so he made the decision to proceed to their destination, KSAT.
After KSAT Approach cleared the pilot to land, he attempted to lower the landing gear. Only two of three came down. He went through the emergency procedures for manual lowering of the gear to no avail. He decided to break off the approach, burn off excess fuel and attempt a gear-up landing. The intentional gear-up was successful, without injury to pilot or passengers.
In this case, the pilot made three good decisions. First, he chose to rotate early rather than stop on the runway to avoid the animals, probably saving human lives. Automobiles are heavily designed to protect occupants in metal-on-metal or metal-on-concrete collisions. Yet YouTube any deer vs. car wreck and you’ll get an idea how much more havoc an animal vs. lightly constructed aircraft would wreak.
Second, he continually assessed the airworthiness of his plane. Third, he chose to dump fuel and land gear up. The NTSB has reported on too many pilots who have attempted to save both their beloved airplane and their own lives, only to save neither.
In another NASA report, a Diamond D-20 pilot took a night flight. While in cruise at 3,500 feet, returning to home base, he heard a loud bang. Subsequent inspection with a flashlight revealed he’d hit a bird. According to the pilot’s NASA report, the bird strike caused no control surface malfunctions or any aircraft control issues. However, he noted in his report that the strike “caused a massive increase in pilot workload.”
As a result, he forgot to run his descent and landing checklists. Consequently, he failed to configure mixture and fuel boost pump for landing. Turning base leg to final, he lined up with a taxiway instead of the runway. When he finally corrected over to the runway at 100 feet, the engine sputtered and quit because of the earlier oversights. That rattled the pilot, who then lost airspeed control, stalled over the runway and made “an extremely hard landing.”
In the final analysis, this pilot did more harm to the airplane through self-imposed pressure than the bird actually did.
Why did one pilot fare better than the other? Was it because one was a 10,000-hour pilot and the other had fewer than 200 hours? Perhaps. Experience certainly counts.
However, there is no evidence to indicate that the more-experienced pilot had ever suffered an animal strike previously. Was it because the King Air pilot was on a daylight mission and the DA-20 pilot was on a night flight? Possibly. Night flying has its own unique set of challenges, including loss of outside visual references, and even those related to the human circadian clock.
The bottom line may be that if you’re about to go flying, so are the birds. Be prepared.