Bird Strike

As I mentioned in my last post, some captain upgrades and new hires are finally appearing at Dynamic.

For the past year and a half, things had been completely static. I was one of the last people to upgrade to the left seat, and those who were stuck as first officers eventually started to get discouraged. It’s hard to blame them. They work extremely hard for $11 an hour (yeah, you read that right) day in and day out. Thankfully, for those who stuck around, their patience has begun to pay off. And for those who haven’t upgraded yet, at least they see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The down side to this is that I have lost some of my favorite first officers. I’m glad they’ve upgraded, but today I started to realize how much I’d come to rely on their experience, not to mention the fun factor of flying with them. Then again, I get to play a part in the training of some upcoming pilots, and that’s pretty neat too.

Today I was flying with one of the “new guys”. It was an atypical day because I clocked in at 6:00 a.m. I normally get an early start, but not THAT early. We were cranking at that hour because a ceremony would be taking place later in the day to honor a soldier whose body was being returned home from Afghanistan. During the ceremony, which was to occur in the middle of our work day, the base would be on “quiet hours”, meaning no aircraft operations were permitted.

My first officer and I had taxied out to the runway for our second flight. We lined up, completed our final checks, set power, and released the brakes. Everything was normal for a few seconds. Then, as we accelerated down the runway, a very large hawk came into view. He was sitting in the middle of the runway with his back to us, wings folded majestically. He didn’t seem to be doing anything special, just sitting there.

My FO (who has only a few flights under his belt in the BE90) asked if he should abort. I said no. My feeling about birds is that they generally get out of the way. Those that don’t are not going to be avoided by maneuvering, especially in something the size of a King Air. It’s akin to a scuba diver trying to out-swim a sea lion under water. We move at a comparatively glacial pace, and if they want to avoid us, they can jink and jank in ways we can only dream of.

And in this case, I don’t think we could have stopped in time anyway, even with full reverse and hard braking. I’d rather hit the bird than try and steer around it in a 10,000 lb. King Air and end up veering off the runway.

We seem to hit birds fairly frequently at Los Alamitos. The base — along with the adjacent Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station — is some of the last open space in the area, and it attracts a lot of wildlife. Now as to why the wildlife that flies seems to enjoy hanging out around the runway, you got me.

So as I mentioned, the hawk was sitting on the runway centerline with his back to us. I’m sure he knew we were coming. A King Air with the props turning at 2200 RPM is pretty loud. Plus we have two alternating flashing landing lights on each wingtip and another one on the nose gear. In fact, I know the bird saw us coming, because he actually turned his head 90 degrees and looked at us as we approached!

By now you’ve probably guessed the hawk elected to make a stand against the five-ton turboprop, and in the words of the Knight Templar, he chose… poorly. We heard a distinctive thump as the half of the hawk which wasn’t left on the runway hit the right main landing gear leg.

We rotated, the FO called for gear retraction, and I selected… nothing. The gear handle wouldn’t move. So I pushed the downlock override, selected gear up, and was rewarded with red lights, warning horn, and no gear movement. Mmm-hmmm. I lowered the gear handle and immediately got three green lights. Down and locked.

Remembering rule #1 (always fly the plane), I elected to monitor the FO as he flew and ignore the gear until we could get to a higher altitude. Once off the coast, I briefed the FO: he would focus on flying the airplane and look for traffic; I would troubleshoot the gear and handle the radios.

There were no indications of blown circuit breakers or other failures. No reason to pump the gear manually, it was already down. There is a checklist for failure to extend, but nothing for a failure to retract. I suspected that the bird strike had done something to the squat switch, because the aircraft was reacting like I had raised the landing gear lever with the plane sitting on the ground.

I called our maintenance shop and after a few queries, they said that if it was definitely down and locked, leave it that way and return. So that’s what we did. I elected to make a fly-by of the tower just to have them look at that right gear leg and see if there was any obvious sign of damage, flat tire, or other abnormality. They didn’t see anything amiss, so we returned and landed uneventfully. Well, aside from the trail of emergency vehicles which followed us to the ramp.

We moved our load to another aircraft and had an uneventful flight. At the end of the day, I got with the mechanic who put our broken bird up on jacks, and what they found was that the hawk had bent part of the squat switch — a device which detects when the airplane’s weight comes off the wheels — in such a way that it was locked in place and always thought the plane was on the ground. An easy fix. And they also found the hawk on the runway. Or should I say, half of it. Apparently our prop cut the bird cleanly in half.

What I learned today (or should I say, re-learned) is that rule #1 really works. Fly the airplane, no matter what. When something goes wrong, there’s often an irresistible urge to do something, fix something, check for that breaker, try the gear retraction juuuuust one more time. In a busy terminal area when you’re low to the ground with the extra drag of the landing gear reducing your climb rate and a brand new low-time first officer flying the airplane, the best course of action is frequently to ignore the problem and just fly.

US Airways Flight 1549

So, the plane-in-the-Hudson thing.

At the risk of tempting fate — because as more than one person has noted, many a captain has been hailed as a hero on Sunday only to be hung out to dry on Monday — it looks like Cactus 1549 was one of those rare cases where an airliner gets totaled and the flight crew’s careers don’t.

Hundreds of articles have already been written about this incident — some by people who actually know what they’re talking about. So I’d like to focus on two things which really piqued my curiosity.

Glider Training: Did It Make a Difference?

Much has been made of the Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s years of experience in the cockpit, but one thing on his resume stands out: he holds a commercial glider rating. Not only that, but according to the FAA Airmen Registry, he is also a rated glider instructor.

Glider pilots are intimately familiar with the concept of “speed-to-fly”, something power pilots never concern themselves with. But perhaps they should. For you power pilots out there, speed-to-fly can best be thought of as a variable “best glide” speed which varies depending on the kind of performance you are seeking. Do you want to stay in the air as long as possible? They your speed-to-fly is the “minimum sink” speed. Want to extract maximum energy from rising air? They you want to fly the “best L/D” speed.

Power pilots are taught that when the powerplant(s) fail and the aircraft becomes a glider, they must immediately fly a predetermined speed which results in the best possible lift-to-drag (L/D) ratio. This is often referred to as the “best glide” speed and is notated as Vg.

The problem is, a fixed Vg speed isn’t always going to extract maximum performance from the aircraft in a power-off situation. An example: assume an aircraft has a Vg speed to 70 knots. But let’s say it’s also flying into a 70 knot headwind. The resulting groundspeed is zero knots. The glide ratio at “best glide” speed is literally zero in this case. In the heat of battle, a power pilot wouldn’t likely notice this, especially at altitude. But a glider pilot would instantly recognize the need to increase the indicated airspeed by 50%, giving a ground speed of about 35 knots. Now this might not produce a spectacular glide ratio, but it’d certainly be a hell of a lot better than zero.

Glider gurus account for the effect of wind on a powerless aircraft in other situations, too. A good example of how this might save your bacon can be illustrated by considering an overwater flight from Long Beach to Catalina Island. Many pilots I’ve trained simply look at the geographic mid-point as the place where, in the event of an engine failure, they’d opt to go toward one place or the other. If the distance between Long Beach and Catalina is 40 miles, they’d turn around until their GPS said 20 nm. After that point they’d continue toward Catalina.

A glider pilot, on the other hand, would have already considered the winds aloft (both forecast and actual), the altitude burned during a 180 degree turn, as well as the terrain on Catalina Island (inhospitable to say the least) as well as the off-airport landing options on the mainland.

Glider pilots also become familiar with what we call “look down” angles. Just by looking out the window, we can tell if we’ll make it to a specific point at our current sink rate. Power pilots do this as well, but usually only on final approach and not always power-off.

Did Captain Sullenberger’s glider experience make the difference in this case? Did it even help? Perhaps not. As I recall, the elapsed time from liftoff to touchdown was only 3 minutes. But his glider experience certainly didn’t hurt. And it may have assisted him in ways even he is not fully cognizant of. When an emergency presents itself to a flight crew, they tend to fall back on their training and experience.

Inadequate Multi-Engine Training?

The most surprising thing about multi-engine training is that it doesn’t really consider the possibility of multi-engine failure. Think about it: most multi-engine aircraft don’t even have a Vg speed listed in the Approved Flight Manual. Most type rating programs, even those for airlines, don’t include all-engines-out scenarios. Thousands of Boeings and Airbuses are flying around with flight crews who don’t even know what the best glide speed for their aircraft is.

I understand this is starting to change, but I’m still surprised it isn’t a major part of initial and recurrent training on any multi-engine aircraft. I can think of quite a few incidents in recent years where an airliner lost all engines. Just off the top of my head:

  • a British Airways 747 lost all 4 engines after encountering volcanic ash.  Engines were restarted at lower altitude.  Major engine damage.
  • a KLM 747 lost all engines after encountering another ash cloud.  Same result.
  • an Air Canada 767 ran out of fuel after a conversion error while fueling.  Landed on a closed runway.
  • a Pinnacle CRJ lost both engines after the flight crew exceeded the aircraft’s limitations.  Engines core-locked and plane crashed.
  • an Air Transat Airbus A330 lost both engines after a fuel leak.  Landed safely on an island.
  • an Ethiopian Airlines 767 was hijacked and forced to an alternate destination without sufficient fuel to fly that far.  Crashed in the water.
  • this week’s US Airways Airbus landing in the Hudson River

A more complete list of unpowered jet airliner accidents is available here.  Keep in mind, that list does not include the many turboprops, bizjets, military aircraft, and other planes which have lost all engines in flight.  There are so many ways this can happen:  fuel contamination, fuel leak , fuel mismanagement, mechanical failure, sabotage, pilot error, bird strikes, hijacking, and the list goes on.  It’s baffles my mind that these scenarios aren’t considered during every multi-engine training program.

At Dynamic, we fly out of a large military base here in Southern California which also happens to be home to some of the last undeveloped land in the area.  As a result, there are a lot of birds around, and bird strikes on our King Airs are fairly common.  More than once I’ve been taxiing out in the morning only to find thousands of large geese wandering all over the field.  Thus far I’ve yet to encounter one in flight, but this US Airways accident is a reminder that it’s a possibility with every takeoff and landing.

C-130 Bird Strike


Bird strikes make for dramatic photos. And the larger the bird, the greater the drama.

Here’s the aftermath of a right-of-way argument between an Air National Guard C-130 and an eagle. As usual, the bird came out on the losing end. It looks like the pilot almost did, too.

Speaking of which, our hero’s had a long day. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking…”

Bulls-eye! The windshield may be designed to take a significant hit, but this access panel probably wasn’t.

This downward-facing shot of the C-130’s cockpit floor reveals a stowaway — a very messy one at that.

I’m not sure if the pilot is stunned by what happened, happy to be alive, annoyed at being photographed in such a state… or possibly all three.