Our morning started in Salem, Oregon with breakfast at my house and some preflight discussion between Jim “Doogie” Robison, Tom Numelin and me.
We’d planned a 10:30am departure of a 3-ship flight to the 4th of July Diamond Point Swift gathering, but soon learned we would be joined by two more Swifts; Alan & Janet Dicker and Steve & Barb Wilson. They were passing through the area on their way to Diamond Point so we made it a 5-ship gaggle. Alan and I playfully argued as to who would lead… I apparently lost that discussion…
The weather was VFR when we departed, but we encountered the forecasted 2000’ OVC ceilings just north of Hillsboro, OR. We had plenty of visibility under the clouds as we continued north on the smooth 2-hour flight along Interstate 5.
As we approached the Hood Canal, the ceilings started to improve. Barb Wilson was keeping us all updated on the weather ahead, using her Ipad and some great aviation software.
It was near Dabob Bay that I spotted the first sign of trouble. What initially looked like a small spec in the windscreen was becoming bigger and rapidly closing on us. It wasn’t moving left or right, so I knew it was either coming right at us, or going away and maybe we were overtaking it. The large wingspan, white head and gold beak tipped me off to the fact that it was coming at us and I was about to come face to face with a bald eagle. Things were happening very fast.
I had little time to do anything but announce to the flight that we had a bird at 12 o’clock. At the last second, I ducked my head and jammed the stick forward as it looked like he’d climbed to go above us. I feared he would come through the windshield. The next thing I heard was the bird slamming into my right wing, just inside of the wing strap. The plane yawed to the right, but otherwise continued to fly.
It took a second or two to realize what had happened; my mind wanted to deny what had happened in spite of the remnants of the eagle that were now clinging to the leading edge of the wing, flapping in the wind. The top of the wing was covered with feathers, blood and bird parts. I flew for about ten miles before the leftovers finally freed themselves from the wing. With a little extra power I was holding altitude.
The closest airport was Jefferson County (ironically, only 5 miles from our original destination). I chose it over Diamond Point because it was wider, longer and had clear approaches. Below us was nothing but water and trees. I wasn’t going to attempt a precautionary landing; I didn’t want to turn an incident into an emergency.
The others in the flight and I discussed the various scenarios that I might encounter, but the biggest concern we identified was whether the gear would come down. From my seat the leading edge appeared to be crushed into the right main tire. Both Doogie and Steve flew under my plane and came to the opinion that it looked like the gear would function as the damage was closer to the pivot point of the gear than the actual tire.
When we arrived at Jefferson County, Doogie, Tom and Alan went ahead and landed. I didn’t want to leave them in the air, low on fuel, if I had to land my Swift gear up.
We had some discussion about the chance the left main would come down and the right main remain in the well, but finally made the decision to give the gear a try. An argument could be made for just leaving the gear in the wells, but I would have hated to later find out they would have worked.
Following a short prayer of thanks for getting me this far, combined with another asking for just a little more help to get on the ground safely, I threw the gear switch. After what seemed like an eternity, I got two greens. Yes! Steve confirmed from his vantage point that everything appeared normal.
Feeling slightly relieved, I entered the downwind leg and slowed to about 80mph. While looking over my left shoulder to check my position against the runway for the base turn, the stick suddenly went limp in my hand; the plane buffeting. I was stalling.
Fortunately, my response was automatic, kicking opposite rudder, adding power and lowering the nose. I lost about 500’ in the recovery and found myself very low and needing to turn back toward the runway. The plane didn’t want to climb, so I accepted the level flight I could maintain and flew it until I intercepted the normal glidepath on final. I maintained 85-90mph until touchdown. Other than a long roll out, things were returning to normal.
The others in the flight met me on the ramp and inspected the damage. Admittedly, it was a close call. I couldn’t help but think about the “what if’s” but frankly the possible outcomes were not pretty. I decided to stick with thinking about what actually happened. I noticed that the pushover to avoid the bird registered -2 G’s on the meter…
Alan did approach me on the ramp at Jefferson and thanked me for leading… He can be so thoughtful!
In hindsight, I don’t know what I could have done differently to avoid the impact. The eagle didn’t seem to want to tuck and dive like most birds do. He held his ground to the end. I guess he paid the ultimate price for that decision.
The surprise stall on the downwind leg could have been avoided. I should have done some slow flight before entering the pattern to determine the stall characteristics of my damaged Swift. I think I was so focused on getting the gear down that when it finally worked, my mind relaxed and transitioned to being on the ground and tying down the airplane.
There are many things for which I am thankful. The Swift is an incredibly strong airplane. I had the support and experiences of those flying with me to help me trouble shoot the possible problems. Finally I want to thank Harley Howell III for stepping up to start the process of returning my Swift to the air.
I’ve attached some photos to give you a sense of the damage a 5-foot, 17-20 pound eagle can do.
I would be happy to answer any question you might have: Swifterdon@comcast.net