A Bird, A Plane

It’s a big sky. The likelihood of clamoring into something while flying is arguably low. At least this was my perception before November 17th. Now — not so much. The sky, often described as a vast emptiness, for me, is a bit more crowded than that; even when I look out there and see nothing. That doesn’t mean there is nothing. Herein lies the conundrum.
A couple of weeks ago I was out with instructor Jill performing commercial maneuvers in preparation for my upcoming check ride. The temperature had climbed into the upper fifties on this sunny fall afternoon. I had performed some steep turns, followed by eights on pylons. After climbing back up to a safe altitude, she asked for slow flight, a power-off stall, and a power-on stall. After recovery, I banked slightly left to begin a clearing turn, directing my eyes outside. SLAM! After thousands of flights, today something alarming happens. a bird strike in a Cessna 172 — on an otherwise unremarkable VFR day of aviation — takes out the windscreen!

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

The wind roared through a gaping hole in the wind screen. Blood dripped from my head and was carried throughout the airplane by the rushing wind. Within a couple minutes blood had all but covered my kneeboard and checklist. The noise was tremendous. I reflexively grabbed the red-tailed hawk which lay in my lap and tossed it to the floor. There was a bit of a numb pain above my right eyebrow. Jill had instinctively taken the controls immediately. Rather immediately I said, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it.” We exchanged controls back to me. I directed my eyes toward the engine instruments on the lower left side of the panel. A pretty nice field was just ahead within gliding distance. The engine instruments were perfectly normal. The wind rushing into the cockpit was so loud, the engine couldn’t be heard at all. The plane seemed to be flying normally and the powerplant appeared okay too. I heard my instructor yell, “go to Mineola.” I rolled the plane gently to the right and pointed the nose in that general direction. I knew she was right. Our maneuvers had placed us closer to a nontowered airport, north of our home field. The above events and actions occurred within a very short period — seconds.
With the plane straight, level, and otherwise normal, I slowed a bit to lessen the wind noise. I looked around and took a slightly more sober assessment of the situation. My phone, which had been mounted on the extreme left side of the windscreen, lay face down on my kneeboard and covered in blood. The deceased hawk lay just behind the fuel selector where I had repositioned it. Jill gestured toward the little Garmin portable GPS navigator that stays mounted in the rental plane. I fine-tuned our heading a bit. As I looked around the cockpit, I noticed my headsets dangling between the seats. I asked Jill if she could put them back on my head, thinking that might help lower the distraction of the wind noise. Now she and I could communicate better with each other, but I noticed we couldn’t hear well enough to understand other people’s radio calls. That would be one less tool on our upcoming approach.

Bird Strike in a Cessna 172

You’re not Gonna Pass Out, Right?

As we neared the airport, on my second radio call, I declared that we had suffered a bird strike and were expediting our path to the runway. The area was clear, and I began to focus intensely on flying the plane by the numbers. I found it noteworthy how much I rely on hearing the engine, even when at idle. Jill asked me a couple times before we got in the pattern if I was okay. I think she meant, “are you going to pass out on short final?” I was aware of what a mess I probably looked like from her seat, but I’ve had my share of scrapes. I’ve never gotten squeamish over blood or much else really. I actually felt okay. However, I did think through the possible wisdom of giving her the controls. Had I felt the least bit like I was going to be out of commission, I would have. I flew the approach pretty much like I would on any other day. The landing was uneventful, but to be honest, I was pretty relieved when the mains kissed the runway. As we rolled toward the taxiway, the realization of what we’d experienced began to set in. Just like that, an experience I’ve read about and watched on video, I had now experienced firsthand and survived. We taxied over and parked the plane in a tie down spot. The quietness of the nontowered country airport was tremendous as we both stared through the jagged hole in the windscreen. Jill seemed happy to be on the ground, as was I.

Roll the Trucks… or at least Tailwheel Pilot

It wasn’t long before a fellow came over in his taildragger. John was a local guy. Not just any local guy though. He’s the kind who knows all the things you need to know about the airport and its folks. He and Jill began to discuss our adventure and I made tracks to the FBO to clean up my bloody face. When I came out, he offered to hangar the plane, and had already brought over a courtesy car for us to get back to our home airport. This was one mighty helpful individual. He said he had heard my radio call about the bird strike and thought he’d come over and see if we were okay. This was remarkable to me. Over the years, I’ve made maybe a hundred landings at this airport, between practice landings, check rides, practice approaches, and whatnot. I hardly ever stop, and when I do, I almost never see a soul. Then, on this day, when a little help is just what we needed, there he was. I was humbled.

Driving Home

Jill and I headed toward home in the airport courtesy car. As pilots do, we discussed the episode all the way back to our home airport. I didn’t really get scared. My mind was focused on the priorities. You know, the ones they train you on, “fly the plane,” and “aviate, “navigate,” and “communicate.” In looking at what will do you harm in an airplane, jettisoning a control surface, and inflight fire have always struck me as the two most harrowing. You train, and train, and train for handling an engine failure. All you can do is play the cards you’re dealt and fly the thing until you’re sitting still again. While this bit with the bird was surprising, noisy, messy, and gave pause, I’ll take that every time over broken wings and in-flight fires. But what exactly had happened?

Bird Strike in a Cessna 172

For the Birds

Bird Strike in a Cessna 172

The hawk must have been diving. She was either diving to encourage us to leave the area and misjudged her angle of attack. Or, she was diving toward something on the ground and just missed the large blue and white aluminum sky chicken with noisy internal combustion engine. Either way, she came in high and from the left. I never saw her, and I was specifically looking. Had I leaned forward and been looking up to see her, I would have probably been hit squarely in the face. As it turned out, all the blood was from a bit of windscreen that put a cut above my right eyebrow. You know how small head wounds are. They bleed like crazy. But, in my experience, they’re often long on drama and short on actual wound. Such was the case here.

All That Training

A week passed before my next flight. Over that week, I replayed the event over in my mind, ensuring there wasn’t something I could have done to prevent it. It’s easy to think in our modern era that we can tidy everything up just so. However, some things just happen. I’ve taken off in an airplane about a thousand times. I’ve never had anything particularly unfortunate happen on a flight. At least nothing that wasn’t the result of my ignorance or stupidity. Some of this is just a numbers thing. If you have thousands of experiences with no issues, it’s easy to begin seeing emergency scenarios as largely conceptual. Perhaps only subconsciously you begin to gloss over emergency training as an activity almost exclusively for check rides and flight reviews. However, it only takes one flight to soundly remind you why those procedures are trained. We may never use most of the emergency training in real life. But it might just be on that 1000th flight, or 10,000th, or 27,000th flight, those procedures may become uniquely real, in real time, and we may only have one shot at getting it right. I am grateful to all my past instructors, and Jill sitting to my right that day. We had powered through maneuver after maneuver which helped me fly, assess, act, evaluate, verify — and with her help — bring this episode to an ideal conclusion.

Bird Strike in a Cessna 172

Back on the Horse

How big is the sky? It was big enough for the aviators of old, and me, and you. However, potential exists for things to get entangled up there — up where there doesn’t seem to be much. The thinking, engineering, progress-minded, vertically oriented ground dweller, through creativity, can be up where the birds fly. Almost always, this is a wondrous thing. Occasionally, an unfortunate thing can happen. A trade-off perhaps. Maybe a penalty for jousting with physics. The price for belaying reality — gravity. For a while you’ve convinced yourself you belong up there. You begin to believe it is normal, or regular — even unremarkable. Then, that one time the undeniable breath of reality rushes in and demands to be breathed. The universe seems to demand an explanation of why you’re up from your perch. But having asked for a pass and one having been given, you go again. You go again in search of an answer to an unanswerable question. How big is the sky?

Podcast Show Notes:

FAA Wings

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