Monday, June 30, 2014

Sometimes Bad Things Happen To Good Pilots

I was PIC when my husband and I went flying to visit another friend of ours at an airpark some months ago for lunch. This airpark is known for having wildlife in the area because it is near one of the many National and State Parks in California. As we approached the airpark we heard another plane in the pattern as it called its position on downwind, final and then landed as we were approaching downwind for the runway in use. I made the standard radio calls as I turned downwind, base and final knowing my friend was monitoring CTAF to know when we arrived, all the while watching for animals on the runway. Another plane taxied to the run-up area when I was on short final. No animals on the runway, I was clear to land.

I landed smoothly in the first 200 feet of the runway, on the centerline and I was pleased. I always like gentle, commercial grade, on the centerline landings, especially with a witness in the plane. I was slowing the plane when my husband suddenly says, "Deer!" The urgency in his voice told me this wasn't a term of endearment. This was something else. I maintained control of the plane and looked around for what must be a deer.

Five deer ran into the runway in front of the plane, about 150 feet ahead. In a moment I evaluated my options, I was too slow to get airborne and above deer height before getting to where they were - risking damage to the landing gear, subsequent landing on damaged gear and potentially loss of control depending on how I might hit them. So I decided to slow the plane as much as possible while still under control and aim the plane between deer to reduce the amount of damage to the fuselage and potential for injury to the plane's human occupants.

Fly all the way to the crash flashed through my mind as I aimed towards a bigger space between the first two deer with my feet hard on the brakes. The power was already at idle. The first deer ran clear of the runway and the plane. The second deer froze. I had a chance, I thought, if the deer stayed put we would all walk away fine. Of course, the second deer didn't. He tried to run for it and disappeared under the front of the plane. I found out later the propeller sliced the deer into a couple pieces and threw his remains under the plane and into the right main gear. We felt a jolt and then the plane was continuing down the runway, still under control and with all parts apparently intact.

Not knowing what happened to the plane on the impact I was careful when I stepped on the brakes again. Good thing too, I suddenly had no right brakes. The deer must have taken out the brake line I figured quickly. Fortunately, the rudder steers down the runway just as well as brakes so I used rudders to maintain control and used the left brake to slow down the plane further. I taxied all the way to the end of the runway and took careful left turns to exit the runway. My husband got on the radio and warned any pilots planning on landing that we just hit a deer and the runway condition behind us was unknown.

The plane that was in the run-up, a Mooney, announced he would taxi out to the impact point and check the runway, which he did. I asked him if he could direct me to transient and he helpfully taxied to the taxiway and lead me to transient parking, allowing me to make all left turns or very wide right turns when I did so. By the time I was in transient a couple people who saw the event were already shoveling the deer's remains clear of the runway. The Mooney pilot said it looked like I had damage to the gear. Then he taxied out and took off on his flight.

I shut down the plane, careful to make myself go through the full after landing and shutdown checklists. We climbed out of the plane to inspect the damage. People were starting to gather. One said he saw the plane swerve to try to miss the deer and pieces of deer go flying into the air after impact. They were impressed with how well the situation was handled.

I was both happy and dismayed by what I saw. On one hand there was relatively little damage, just a dent in the prop with a scrap of deer hair, deer blood on the right wing but no dents on the leading edge of the wing. The right main gear door was bent and the right main brake line was pulled loose and dripping brake fluid. Deer gore was splattered on the underside of the wing and wedged into the gear. No one was hurt, the runway was already re-opened with planes taking off and landing, deer free, and the plane was sitting safely in transient out of the way. On the other hand, I was sad, I hurt the plane.

Over 500 hours of flying with a perfect record and now I damaged a plane. I tried to console myself. I knew my decision not to attempt a go-around and the way I handled the situation prevented worse damage and possibly injury. Still I was upset.

I've talked before about how I am very careful to fly within my and my plane's capabilities, my care in planning flights, preflight, flight to landing, etc. etc. I think I subconsciously thought, if I am careful, deliberate and precise in every aspect of my flying, nothing bad could happen to me. This event taught me, no matter how careful one is, bad things can happen to good, careful pilots. No matter how good a pilot you are, either through superior judgment, skill or both, there are no guarantees you won't face a situation that could result in damaged plane or worse when you fly.

The other thing this event taught me is, I have the right instincts, training, judgment, skill or combination of them all, to create the best possible outcome out of a bad situation. Our A&P got a flight permit, fixed the gear in the down position and swapped the prop and flew the plane back to our home airport. The plane is being repaired and will fly again. The plane's owner, whenever he sees me now, greets me with a grin and a "Hi, Dear." No hard feelings there. While my confidence is increased as a result of this experience, some of my innocence is lost. I am sad for that too.

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