(Who's the endangered species again?)
I occasionally go flying with my friend Ron Ellis, who has a share in a Piper Cherokee. We usually just fly around the area, do a few touch and goes, etc. just for fun. On this particular journey, I had a camera along since I had a few pictures left that I wanted to use up so I could develop the roll (Chel and Dan had been over the weekend before.) Ron and I took off from Melbourne and turned south. We decided to go to the Sebastian airport (about 35 miles south), land, grab a soda, and see if there was anything interesting going on, then eventually make our way back. As we approached the area, there was a small rain shower nearby. I thought it was kind of cool, since I'd never actually flown through rain before. We only got a few splatterings on the windshield, no big deal. We flew around the rain, and set up to land. As we were on short final about a mile and a half from the runway, we saw a large bird about a half-mile ahead. We thought it was a buzzard, and he was well underneath us and heading off to our right. Unfortunately, we were about to land, so we were losing altitude quickly ourselves. Soon we realized the bird had started circling in a thermal... right back into our path. By this time, he was lined up with us, and about level with us. Now coming in on final is no place for sudden maneuvering, and the bird had circled pretty soon before we got near. I don't think the situation really clicked at this point, because I got out the camera for a picture. Before we knew it, we had a LARGE bird directly ahead and about 30 feet higher than us, less than a hundred yards out - and we were closing at 80 mph. The bird then saw us, and did what most birds instinctively do when startled in mid-air... he did a perfect split-S, folded his wings in, and tried to dive quickly out of harm's way.
Unfortunately, diving to safety meant that those few feet of altitude difference between him and us evaporated at about the same rate that we overtook him. As this large raptor grew in the windshield, Ron and I both found ourselves yelled several things not fit to print as our premature demise seemed to be becoming an all too real possibility. As we came upon him, he flinched a little and passed about 15 feet beneath our right wing. As he went by, seemingly in slow motion, I saw that it was not a buzzard or turkey vulture, but in fact was the biggest bald eagle I've ever seen. In fact it seemed like the biggest freakin' bird I've ever seen in my entire life. I am pretty sure that he was giving me the same look that I was giving him. As we realized we had missed him, we breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded to land normally.
I later discovered that I had instinctively snapped a picture right as he began his dive, which was about the time we realized we were about to have a serious problem. Here's the picture, I had to enlarge it a bit to make it show up well here, the original looks better. If you look closely, you can see the eagle is seen through arc of the propeller, directly in front of the right seat (where I was sitting.)
Thinking about this after landing, we realized several things from this. One, that we should have been more aware that the bird may not have stayed on a straight course, which he of course didn't. Second, the thought of a nine-pound bird coming through a thin plexiglass windshield at between 75 and 100 mph is highly likely to either kill or seriously injure one or both of us. Third, that if you must pass near a bird in the air, you should do so from above it, not below. Now I see how easy it was for that B-1B to hit that flock of pelicans while they were training at 500 mph at very low altitude. But the one thing I really want to know is... had we hit the eagle and crashed, would the EPA have shown up at the crash site and arrested us for killing a protected species?
All in all, it is amazing that we had this experience. While birdstrikes do happen, the odds are against it on any particular flight. If one does occur, it is not terribly likely to cause a problem preventing a safe landing. To be that close to a bird that large, a bald eagle no less, was quite a long shot. While it was scary, I still feel far safer in the air than on the ground... there is a good chance that is the only time in my life that will ever happen. Let's hope so anyway.
Well, no harm was done in the end and we enjoyed seeing the new Velocity model at their factory in Sebastian. I used to work there as a co-op in college, and I got to say hi to Scott Swing, owner and my boss :) We also found a snack machine in the Sebastian Skydiving outfit, where we noticed that half the people were giddy with excitement and the other half were petrified, apparently by their impending doom. I suspect that the second half were first-timers. After waiting out the same small shower we flew around before landing, we took off for an uneventful return home... sure did keep a watchful eye out for birds though!
Long as you're here, I'll show you a couple of pictures of the Velocity factory demonstrators, including the the full-size door they have now (when I was there, you had to climb onto the wing to get in the airplane, which wasn't very popular with a lot of the pilot's wives!) This has transformed a great plane that was a little hard to get into into a plane that has the feel of a serious proposition for some serious, convenient cross-country travel. If I had funds to buy a plane, this would have to be on I would serious consider. I am 6 foot 1, Ron is a bit taller... and we both can fit in it with no problem at all. Comparing this to the Cherokee or a C-172 would be sort of like comparing a VW Beetle to a BMW, except the Velocity is still a heck of a lot cheaper than a new Cessna!
Here is a view of a very colorful Velocity!
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