Bird strikes, or even close encounters with those creatures sharing our airways, will terrorize any aviator.
While training as a T-38 Talon instructor pilot (IP) at Randolph AFB (RND), I was in the back seat on a night sortie instructing my IP who was role-playing a student in the front seat. While I was demonstrating an instrument approach, my IP’s cursing kept interrupting my train of thought and instruction. His outbursts were caused by numerous bats zinging past the canopy which was disconcerting to say the least. Apparently, our landing light (and perhaps his cursing) got the bats’ attention – we didn’t experience any bat strikes.
A few weeks later, my IP and I witnessed the results of multiple bird strikes as we were strapping into our T-38 for an early morning takeoff. We heard the afterburners (A/B) of two T-38s light-off as they began a formation takeoff on RND’s runway 33R. Two of my fellow IP trainees were in the back seats with their IPs in the front seats. Approaching us from behind, they came roaring northward. Hearing a loud ‘BOOM!’, my IP said, “Sounds like someone had an A/B blowout!” We turned and watched as the two aircraft flew by and noted things were amiss. The lead aircraft was trailing a longer than normal, bright red/yellow A/B flame which was not the normal pattern or color.
As the lead quickly slowed, his nose came up slightly and the wingman passed him. The lead’s rear canopy then flew off which was quickly followed by a bright flash in the rear cockpit. That flash was the rocket motor of the ejection seat which shot upward and then fell away as my classmate’s parachute blossomed. He landed in the departure end overrun. A second later, the IP safely ejected and landed just beyond RND’s perimeter fence in the median of a local highway – narrowly avoiding the rush-hour traffic! The pilotless Talon rolled to the right and disappeared behind some trees from where a large fireball billowed upward. It crashed in an empty field behind a nearby neighborhood. No one was hurt. A flock of cowbirds had flown in front of the aircraft as they raised their landing gear. Both engines failed after ingesting a number of the birds.
Years later I was an IP at MacDill AFB (MCF) in the back seat of an F-16 with a student in the front seat flying a precision approach. Halfway down the glidepath, I saw a seagull above and in front of us. I held my breath but, as expected, the seagull performed a tuck and dive maneuver which was a common reaction of ‘trash birds’ to avoid approaching aircraft. He was unsuccessful as I heard and felt a thud seemingly on the right side of our jet. I told the student, “I’ve got the airplane!” adding, “Don’t move the throttle!”
Holding the power steady, I continued the approach until I knew we were in a position that should the engine quit, I could still reach MCF’s 12,000-foot runway. I then advanced the throttle while watching the RPM and the Fan Turbine Inlet Temperature (FTIT) gauge which measures the high-pressure turbine inlet temperature – a good indicator of engine ‘wellness’. Had the engine burped, I would have landed. But everything worked as advertised so I continued the go-around maneuver. However, I didn’t raise the gear or flaps as I wanted someone to make certain the landing gear, tires, and brake lines were intact, and the flaps were unscathed. Upon landing, I didn’t want my F-16 to become an Off-Runway Vehicle (ORV) should I lose directional control.
Another IP from my squadron was in the pattern and I asked him to join up and look me over. He quickly slid in close and, dropping underneath, reported, “Boss, it looks like he hit just aft of the intake on the right side of your fuselage and then smeared along the fuselage without getting close to the gear, brake lines, or flaps.”
I thanked him and, leaving the gear and flaps hanging, circled back for an uneventful landing. After shutting down, I walked down the fuselage tracing the remains of this bird when my crew chief called out from my jet’s tailpipe, “Sir, you need to see this!”
Upon joining him, he pointed out a clump of scorched feathers stuck in what we called the ‘turkey-feathers’. Turns out, the bird was split on the engine’s intake and most of his remains went down the fuselage but one of his wings went through the engine’s fan section, i.e., not the core. They found no damage when they pulled the engine and ‘scoped’ it. We were lucky!
My most memorable bird strike happened when flying an A-10 ‘Warthog’. I not only hit a bird once but, about 30 minutes later, I managed to hit the same bird a second time! You’re probably wondering, “How in the world could that happen?” I’ll tell you.
I was leading a two-ship mission from Myrtle Beach AFB (MYR – ‘the Beach’) to conduct some weapons delivery training on the Poinsett gunnery range about six miles south of Shaw AFB (SSC). With my wingman (callsign – ‘Maddog’), we would be dropping six practice bombs and making three to four strafing passes with our seven-barrel, 30MM, GAU-8 Gatling gun. A range control officer (RCO) would provide immediate feedback by passing us our scores.
Start and taxi were normal. We stopped in the arming area at the approach end of the runway where a weapons crew pulled the pins from our bombs and guns.
When cleared, I took the active with Maddog on my wing and gave the signal to run up our engines. After getting his head-nod acknowledging he was ready, I gave the brake release signal and we started rolling. I began with my engines at full throttle, but immediately pulled them back just a hair giving Maddog a slight power advantage, which allowed him to stay in position. I checked Maddog’s position several times as we rolled and, as I rotated to the takeoff attitude, I glanced once more to make sure he was hanging with me. That’s when I saw something out of the corner of my eye flash below my Warthog’s nose and felt a very slight thump. I immediately checked my engines and they were operating normally. I asked Maddog if he saw anything; he replied, “A bird flew under your nose.” adding, “I don’t think he hit you.”
Aborting the takeoff wasn’t an option as we were now airborne and I was concerned my Warthog could become an ORV upon landing. Given Maddog’s statement, I thought the thump I’d felt was my main gear running over a seam in the runway. I wanted him to look me over before I tried to land with any damage. As a precaution, I didn’t signal for us to raise our gear or flaps.
We headed to a nearby Military Operating Area so Maddog could give me a close look. When directed, he passed under my airplane looking for damage, leaks, or anything amiss. He reported, “I don’t see any bird-strikes. Your flaps, gear, and brake lines are undamaged, and there are no hydraulic or fuel leaks.”
I said, “Ok, gear and flaps up, let’s head to the range.” I set a course taking us there and we checked in with the RCO at our scheduled range time. We were soon dropping our bombs one at a time. When our bombs were expended, we prepared to strafe.
On my first strafing pass, I radioed “One’s in hot for strafe.” When the RCO saw I was properly aligned with the target, he replied, “Cleared hot.” Nearing the foul-line (3,000-feet from the target) at 100-150 feet AGL, I squeezed the trigger and immediately heard and felt a loud thump and a bird struck the windscreen directly in front of my face! I released the trigger and called “Knock it off!” letting the RCO know that our range mission was over.
I declared an emergency while making an immediate 180-degree right turn toward Shaw AFB and advised the RCO I had a bird strike. Maddog joined up to look me over and to chase me through my landing.
The RCO must have given the Shaw tower a heads up because as soon as I contacted them, I was cleared for a straight-in approach. I landed uneventfully and, as I cleared the active, ground control informed me a weapons crew would meet me at the departure end of the runway to safe our weapons. Maddog soon pulled in beside me and a pickup joined us.
The de-arming crew jumped from the pickup and one of them hooked up his headset to speak with me on the intercom. While the others “safed” the bomb racks, I felt him pop open the access panel directly below my ejection seat to insert the safing pin for my GAU-8. That’s when he said, “$#!t! sir, this is bad!”
I asked what was wrong. He answered, “Your gun is really messed up. It’s leaking hydraulic fluid and some parts fell out on the ramp when I opened the access panel.” After consulting with the rest of the de-arming crew, it was decided I could taxi to the transient ramp and park. Maddog and I taxied in and shut down.
Upon climbing down from the cockpit, I peered into that access panel and viewed the damage. I then heard someone call out, “Hey, look here!” as he pointed at the business end of the GAU-8 projecting from the nose of every A-10.
Gathering around, we saw baked feathers, blood, and bird innards in and around the muzzle of one of the seven barrels of my gun.
In reconstructing this incident, we figured Maddog had indeed seen a bird dive in front of my Warthog’s nose and pass below me. What he didn’t see was a second bird that wasn’t so lucky. With me going 130+ KIAS, that second bird struck the front of my GAU-8 and the majority of his remains went down one of the barrels. While exceeding 350+ KIAS numerous times leading up to my first trigger pull, that bird stuffing was packed deep into the barrel. It remained there until the first 30MM round (weighing nearly one pound!) came down that barrel at over 3,300 feet per second. Before splattering on my windshield, that bird stuffing created a LOT of back-pressure that damaged my gun and caused the loud thump I had heard and felt.
The Shaw AFB maintenance personnel cleaned my windscreen, isolated the hydraulic lines powering the GAU-8, and handed me a bag containing the parts that fell out when the access panel was opened. Maintenance and operations personnel at ‘the Beach’ then cleared me for a one-time flight home.
The return flight was uneventful, but I’ll never forget hitting the same bird twice!