I Learned About Flying From That

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"Fly the plane, fly the plane, fly the plane!" I remembered my instructors from years back drilling this phrase into my head during my training … and it would pay off!

It was a foggy April morning in Atlanta. I had checked the weather the night before and the ceilings were forecast to be low but getting better throughout the day. We were all excited about this trip to the Bahamas. It had been planned by one of our clients, Superior Flight School at Cobb County/McCollum Field (RYY). Superior does the recurrent training for the licensed pilots in our company and they plan a number of trips like this each year for their customers and friends.

Our first leg was going to take us to Fort Pierce, Florida. My good friend Steve and his wife, Jackie, stopped by our house that morning to pick us up so we would only have one car at the airport. We did the preflight, loaded the Baron and were on our way to the warm waters of Hope Town, Abaco Islands, the Bahamas. We took off in low ceilings, climbing through layers until we leveled at our filed cruise altitude of 11,000 feet where we were in the clear. As we cruised through South Georgia we started to get complaints from the wives about how cold it was in the cabin. I turned the heater on and waited for the complaints to end. The heater was running but we were not getting any heat or that weird smell you usually get when it comes on. I waited 10 minutes or so and tried again. This time we got the smell. The heat came on and everybody was happy.

I was looking at my low altitude chart and lowered it to take a peak at my Garmin 396, which was on top of the dash in front of Steve. Something did not look right. As I glanced up again I saw the head of a snake staring at me. My first thought was it had to be a joke that my wife, Tammy, was playing on me since she knows I am terrified of snakes and that I frequently have nightmares involving snakes. I looked at Steve and then up again at the panel and saw that the glareshield was covered by the snake's body. At that time I tried to use the chart to block my view of the snake so I wouldn't panic and hyperventilate. Steve looked at me and said, "Calm down, don't panic." Our wives, aware that something was amiss, wanted to know what was going on. Steve told them to look at the panel where the snake was slithering down across the yoke on the copilot's side. It worked its way down through the yoke, across Steve's lap and lay in between the two of us with it's head on the center arm rest. Most of its body was on Steve's left leg. Steve said, "Just fly the airplane, fly the plane." All I could do was try not to look at the snake and concentrate on making our descent to 10,000 feet as assigned by JAX Center. The snake laid there for a while and I was able to breathe a little easier since it was not moving. Our wives were on their knees on the back seats wishing they were somewhere else.

We radioed JAX Center and advised them of the situation. The controllers were very helpful and asked us if we knew what type of snake it was. I told them we did not know. They wanted to know if we would like to land at the closest airport, which was Waycross. The weather indicated all of the South Georgia airports were IFR and the thought of shooting an instrument approach in IMC with a snake onboard did not sound like a good idea to me. I told center that we would like to go to Craig Field, which was VFR. At that time they assigned us a different frequency since we started to hear comments from other aircraft in the area about "snakes on a plane." Later we realized they had switched us to an emergency frequency because we were the only ones on it.

We decided that if the snake would remain still we would leave it alone until we were on the ground. That did not work. The snake started to slither downward behind the armrest and toward the front of the aircraft. Steve didn't want the snake to get away for fear that I would freak out not knowing where it was. Also, he was afraid it might wrap itself around the rudder pedals, making for an unsafe landing. He told us afterwards that he also feared that if the snake got away and found a hiding place we would have never continued the trip to the Bahamas. He was right. The snake already had half its body under the armrest so Steve grabbed it. It wrapped its tail around his hand. He tried to pull it out so we could put it in a plastic bag that our wives found onboard. That didn't work either. He was amazed at how strong the snake was. Steve kept pulling but it must have been wrapped around something because he could not free it. To make matters worse it decided to secrete this yellow liquid that stank, really badly. Things were not going well.

We were about 70 miles from Craig and had a headwind. We asked ATC for a lower altitude, hoping to gain some speed. As we got closer to Craig we made plans for the airplane evacuation. Our wives would exit through the back cargo door and Steve and I would remain seated until we could get help from someone on the ground. Finally, we were on the visual approach to Craig. The landing was uneventful and we taxied to the FBO with Steve still holding the snake. As soon as we stopped the airplane and shut the engines down the two gals bolted out the baggage door. In less than 30 seconds my wife was standing on the wing opening the cockpit door. One of the line crew was there to greet us and when Jackie told him there was a snake on the plane he dropped the red carpet and went the other way.

By this time Tammy had the door open and, I really don't know how I did it, I climbed across the cabin between my copilot and the yoke and got out. Another member of the line crew approached and told us he had raised snakes to sell to farmers and was not afraid of reptiles. He looked inside the cockpit and said, "That is a copperhead." That is not what Steve wanted to hear since he still had a grip on its tail. The lineman left and returned with a broom handle and leather gloves. He was able to grab the snake behind its head, free it from the armrest and remove it from the aircraft. It was approximately three and a half to four feet long and two inches in diameter.

To say we were relieved is an understatement. After cleaning the cabin (remember the stinky yellow substance?) we took a much needed rest break, filed a new flight plan, topped off the tanks and flew on to Marsh Harbor. Immediately after clearing Bahamian customs we headed for the nearest watering hole where we enjoyed the best lunch (and beers) of our lives.

Many thanks to Craig Jet Center and their "snake handler." My mechanic said that the snake probably climbed up the nose gear and gained access to the heater. At 11,000 feet the snake was cold and inactive. When the heater was turned on it vacated via the right defroster vent. I have a phobia of snakes and was terrified, but I did what I had been trained to do. Remember, no matter what happens in the cockpit, maintain your cool and fly the aircraft.

Julian Galvis and Steve Knowle are employed by Phoenix Aviation Managers, Inc., an aviation insurance company located in Kennesaw, Georgia.

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