I Learned About Flying From That

On the afternoon of September 3, 1996, I had just taken off from the Mineral Wells, Texas, airport where I worked as a test pilot for an autopilot manufacturer. The aircraft I was flying was an Experimental Lancair (N353RD), and I was conducting a test on an S-Tec 50 autopilot. Another pilot was supposed to have gone with me on this flight, but his weight would have adversely affected the aircraft's center of gravity and I was doing a CG sensitive test. He would later thank me for not taking him along.

After takeoff on Runway 17, I turned southwest toward the neck of the woods where my wife and I live, approximately seven miles from the airport. I liked to fly over our house at 500-feet agl and look at the property, and my wife was usually home so she could get a glimpse of what I was flying that particular day.

I had just flown over the house while making a 45-degree right turn to a heading of about 270 degrees and rolled wings level. As I turned my attention back to the cockpit and began looking ahead, I could not believe what I saw. There, directly in front of the aircraft, approximately 200-300 feet (I really don't know how far but it was too close), was a big, black turkey vulture (what we in Texas call a buzzard) trying to get out of my way. I froze on the controls, not knowing whether to pull or push on the yoke. I only had a couple of seconds to act and I had obviously waited too long. The buzzard was doing his best to get out of the way, wheeling and turning every which way, but his luck had run out. Every thing seemed to happen in slow motion as the right side of the windscreen exploded and the buzzard joined me in the cockpit. He actually landed in the back seat, but at the time I wasn't sure if he came in or bounced off the top of the canopy.

All I knew was there was suddenly a 140-knot wind in the cockpit spreading blood, feathers and Plexiglas everywhere. My first reaction was total disbelief. Many times I had come close to birds in flight, but they had always managed to get out of the way or I had been able to avoid them by evasive maneuvers. This time the aircraft's speed and other factors had exceeded the bird's capability to avoid being hit.

After flying for 30 years this wasn't the only scrape I had been in, but perhaps the most life threatening. I remember what my excellent instructors had always taught me: Fly the airplane first. Since the buzzard had missed me I was still able to fly the aircraft, so I began to assess the damage. The engine was still running and I could control the aircraft but could not control the power. The throttle control seemed loose and had no effect on the manifold pressure, which was still indicating 24 inches. I was glad I still had power since I dreaded the thought of an off-airport landing in a high-performance aircraft such as this. Then I noticed the nose landing gear light was now illuminated. I began to wonder what kind of weird damage the buzzard had inflicted on the aircraft. I checked the rest of the gauges and they all seemed normal. I immediately turned back toward the airport with my Dave Clarks flapping in the breeze. I wondered if the landing gear would come down okay when needed.

As I approached the airport I called the guys on Unicom and told them of my predicament. They agreed to take a look at the landing gear for me if I would fly by the terminal building. I selected "gear down" and hoped for the best. All three lights were illuminated now. I made the low pass down Runway 13 and they verified that the gear appeared down and locked so I decided to try a landing. As I entered downwind for Runway 13 I wondered how I was going to control the power, since the manifold pressure was still stuck on 24 inches. Then it dawned on me that I could use the mixture control for power regulation. I had considered turning the magnetos off and on, but decided the mixture idea was better since grounding and un-grounding the magnetos with a high power setting can be extremely hard on the engine. I would use this method only as a last resort.

I lined up for Runway 13 on about a two mile final. I wanted to give myself plenty of time to figure things out and see if my power regulation theory would work. I pulled the mixture control off and airspeed began to bleed off. When I started getting too slow I would push the mixture back in. I knew this wasn't good for the engine but at the time that fact seemed relatively unimportant. I just wanted to get on the ground. I did this several times during the approach and landing, and eventually taxied off the runway and onto the ramp where I shut it down for good. I just sat there a few minutes, glad to be on the ground in one piece and trying to regain my composure. The crew, having been alerted by the Unicom guys, came rushing out and extracted me from the aircraft, which they towed into the hangar right away. Later examination of the throttle control revealed that a cotter pin had been omitted on the nut that held the control to the fuel injector, and it just happened to turn loose at the least opportune time. We never did find out what caused the nose gear light to come on.

The only injury I suffered was a Plexiglas nick to the right elbow, which was fixed with a Band-Aid and a tetanus shot later at the doctor's office. I considered myself very fortunate as I speculated what might have happened had the buzzard hit the left side of the windscreen. The buzzard came out much worse than I did. I was also thinking what might have happened to my copilot, had he gone along on that flight, since the bird came through the right side of the canopy.

Of course this incident had to be reported to the FAA, which I did, and nothing much came of that. But I later got an inquiry from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wondering why I had killed one of their buzzards with my airplane. After some more paperwork and explanations they seemed satisfied that it was an unavoidable accident. I learned later that most of these species of bird do not fly much above 3,000-feet agl and to be much more alert when flying at low altitudes, especially around airports, since that's where they seem to congregate.7

To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to www.barryrossart.com