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4 min read

Wisdom is born from experience.

Experience is often born from a lack of wisdom.

So there I was . . . .

It was 5:45am on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and my buddy Hans had just arrived at my hangar in Forest Lake, Minnesota (25D) for our planned 6:00am departure to Madeline Island, Wisconsin (4R5). It was a perfect morning to fly: clear skies, slight breeze out of the south, and an air temperature of 48 degrees as we climbed into the cockpit of my trusty Beechcraft Skipper. Based on weight and balance calculations, I filled the Skipper only to the tabs (19 gallons of fuel). The Skipper burns 6.5gph so we had plenty for our first leg, an 80 minute flight to Ashland, Wisconsin (ASX)—assuming no unexpected headwinds.

beech skipper

The Skipper burns 6.5gph at just over 100kts.

For those who have never been to Madeline Island, I highly recommend it. If you find yourself in the Upper Midwest, perhaps going to or from Oshkosh, it is a great place to spend a few hours or a few days. The FBO has a number of bicycles to make the 1.5 mile trek into town if you want to get there quicker than walking. Once in town you can grab a bite to eat and then rent a Vespa and scoot around this quaint little island in the Apostle Islands. If the weather is clear, I recommend flying a scenic loop out around all of the Apostle Islands before heading on your way. There is no fuel on Madeline, but Ashland is a short 13 miles to the southwest.

As we taxied down the taxiway to depart on runway 13, Hans pointed over and said, “Will you look at that, a bald eagle.” Sure enough, standing just off the runway on the infield grass, at about the exact location I expected to be starting my rotation, stood a large bald eagle. S##t!, I thought. Won’t the sound of my engine while taxiing scare him off? Should I continue my taxi all the way to the end of runway 13 and then back-taxi the entire runway just to scare him off and then taxi all the way back down again? If I do that, how will it affect my fuel calculation?  If I apply full throttle on takeoff surely the sound will scare him and he’ll fly away from the runway and the sound of the airplane. Maybe my run-up will scare him off. This was all wishful thinking and these are the thoughts that were going through my head as we continued to taxi to the takeoff end of runway 13.

I applied my brakes, ran the throttle up to 1700rpm, and went through my pre-takeoff checklist. The eagle was still there. Screw it, I thought. He’ll take off the other way as the sound of my plane approaches. I made my radio calls and pulled onto the runway. Full throttle and a little right rudder and we were rolling. The eagle still had not moved. I was now focused on the airplane, primarily remaining straight down the runway and watching my airspeed, knowing that I would rotate at around 65 knots.  The speed climbed, 20 knots… 30 knots. I glanced up and the eagle was still there. At 40 knots he was still there and now only about 200 feet in front of me. Then 50 knots, 60 knots—I was focused on my rotation at this point.

At 65 knots I rotated the nose up and the eagle spread his wings (at least a 7 ft. wingspan) and took off less than 100 ft. in front of me. We were both airborne, centered on the runway, on a heading of 130 degrees, but I was going about 55 knots faster than he was! I had to avoid hitting him with the propeller.

He banked 45 degrees to the right. With a wingspan of over 7 ft. he was probably blocking 5 ft. of vertical space directly in front of my right wing. If I hit him with my wing we would probably be fined, but then I would likely hurt or even kill the eagle. Would the DNR show up at my door? PETA? I banked slightly left to avoid hitting him with the right wing. My stall horn promptly went off! Level wings, nose down (I was already at full throttle). I couldn’t have been 30 ft. off the ground to begin with, so if I was not previously still in ground effect, I was back there now.

We missed him. We were now flying straight and level at about 10 feet off the runway, albeit slightly left of centerline.

Did I mention that we have high power lines about ¼ mile off the end of runway 13? The power lines are not exactly perpendicular to the runway, which is good.  We missed the eagle and now the power lines were front and center. A slight bank to the right bought us a good deal more distance and we easily cleared them. An air temperature of a cool 48 degrees probably helped some.

We were now on our way.

Hans never said a word the entire time. I looked over to him and said, “Next time we’ll back-taxi the runway.”

Wisdom is born from experience.

Experience is often born from a lack of wisdom.

Don Stehler
Latest posts by Don Stehler (see all)
7 replies
  1. Dan Davids
    Dan Davids says:

    Many moons ago I was an editor for Aviation Consumer. We featured a different airplane in our monthly Used Aircraft Guide. I was assigned the Skipper one month and I was eager to see how it flew. I located one at a small flight school in NewJersey and drove down from Greenwich to check it out. With a couple thousand hours instructing in C150/C152 and AA1Bs, I was especially interested in seeing how the Skipper compared.

    Your climbout over trees made me recall my own experience in New Jersey. Returning from the usual airwork, we started some touch and goes on the relatively short runway. After the second landing I noticed the climb rate was pretty anemic. Glancing at the turn coordinator I noted the ball wasnʻt centered. I added more right rudder and the climb rate picked up. I described what I had seen to the the young CFI next to me and told him Iʻd like to look further into it on the next pass. Right after liftoff I relaxed right rudder, kept the wings level, and noted probably 3/4 of a ball out. Climb rate was less than 200fpm and we were aimed straight into the tall trees off the end of the runway. I pointed to the ball and smoothly centered it. My instructor passenger was visibly relieved to see the climb rate return to 450+fpm. The drag polar for the Skipper is clearly very sensitive to sideslip. Not a bad thing. Just be sure to pay attention to coordination when performance matters in this bird. I believe this characteristic was at work in your eagle maneuver. By the way, your airplane and hangar both look great.

  2. Jan Squillace
    Jan Squillace says:

    “Wisdom is born from experience. Experience is often born from a lack of wisdom.”

    Ain’t THAT the TRUTH!
    The trick is to survive it all.
    Great story, even better ending.

  3. William R Burton
    William R Burton says:

    I owned Skipper N3733C for several years (actually twice, so I liked the airplane plenty). Kept sometimes on a grass strip, sometimes at a major airport. As long as I paid attention to density altitude, I never had a problem with climbing out of a relatively short grass field even with full tanks and 2 aboard. BUT, mostly she was at or near sea level, so there is that. Admittedly, I was a slave to calculating W&B and DA. That plane was the most comfortable side-by-side 2-place I ever flew, had great elbow room and visibility, fuel efficiency and was easy (I thought) to fly. If I was young enough to fly still, and get insurance, I would shop for one again. Beech got the ergonomics and aerodynamics right, including the T-tail (which gave Tomahawk pilots some heartburn I’m told). Only reason I sold her in the first place, each time, was moving up to a 4-place. I enjoyed reading this story and for the nostalgia the years afore.

  4. Mark Scardino
    Mark Scardino says:

    There I was at NW Arkansas airport at the gate. Calling for taxi I heard Ground talking to someone about 3-4 eagles off the side of the runway, about 1500’ down. I queried ground and he said you’ll see them when we taxied onto the parallel taxiway. There they were! It was my leg to ATL so taking off I glanced over and they were still standing there, actually turning their heads to follow us as we went by. So cool!

  5. David Tyler
    David Tyler says:

    I took my wife and two young men from church up to Prescott, AZ one morning in my new-to-me Turbo 210 for an expensive breakfast. On departure, we were about to switch over to Phoenix Approach when a huge bird — an eagle? It all happened _really_ fast — appeared to my right, wings spread and close enough I could see its _eyes_. I rolled left, pulled back, and waited for the sound of impact (which thankfully never came). We all had to take a minute and catch our breath. Those things don’t have ADS-B!

  6. Dave s
    Dave s says:

    No doubt about it, a trip to Madeline island is a beautiful thing to do. We have been their many times and birdies on the runway is not uncommon. After a underwing camping on the island one night, we found the runway and tarmac populated with sky carp (canadian geese I am told). If a person knows anything about geese, they seem to have one brain cell shared among a gaggle of no less than 10 birds, so most of them are really stupid and don’t care at all. Anyway, A lot of bird shooing from the runway before our departure. Once the sky carp were shooed away, we started up and the propwash stirred up a whole lot of feathers that the birds had shed during their frequent sojourn at the ‘port.

    A bird sitting on the ground is the worst – never know what they will do.

    I will give you this, An eagle is a whole lot smarter than geese and mostly they will try to get out of your way, even if a little late. So glad you didn’t hit the bird. At altitude they see you before you can see them and they seem to act accordingly.

    Another critter to be watchful for in this part of the midwest is sandhill cranes – they stand several feet tall. They love airports particularily if there is water in the ditches. Seen them at many airports up here in the summer. One of my pals missed the fact that a sandhill was sitting on the runway when he was landing (Sandhills are about the color of tthe runway) and the resulting splat was similar to hitting a large feather pillow leaving a big cloud of feathers over the runway and some dents in the flap and gear leg fairings.

    Highly recommend Madelie as a great place to visit – the ferry can take you to Bayport for some ice cream and shopping. View of the big lake is wonderful.


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