chapter 19

The Birds and the Trees

For some reason that old Pawnee had a landing light mounted in the leading edge of its left wing. It never worked. I don't even remember if it had a switch inside the cockpit. The lens of that landing light was a piece of plexiglass wrapped around the leading edge of the wing in the same shape as the airfoil.

I lost that landing light installation one afternoon pulling up out of a cotton field. Just as I pulled up over a line of Mesquite I spotted a tall, skinny dead limb sticking up above the brush. It was too late to miss it, and it hit dead center on that landing light installation. It was a solid hit. The impact felt like I had hit a bridge timber, but I wasn't concerned about it. I had gotten a glimpse of the limb just before it hit, and I could see that it wasn't much bigger than a broom handle.

I hardly glanced at my wing and snapped over into a steep-banked left turn. Instantly, the left wing hammered into a deep stall and tried to roll up under me. I slammed the aircraft level and dumped the nose. I was scared bad. I had never before had an airplane try to roll up under me like that.

I looked out at the wing and could see that the limb had completely knocked out the plexiglass light, leaving an empty notch in the leading edge of my wing. I made a few practice turns with the aircraft and discovered that the loss of that short section of leading edge had so badly disturbed the air flow over the wing that it wanted to go into an abrupt stall anytime the airspeed dropped off to about 85 m.p.h. I went on and put out the rest of that load, but I was careful to keep up a full head of steam and to make my turns gently and carefully.

It was scary to realize that what looked like such minor damage could convert that reliable old airplane into such a treacherous trap.

I was working off the San Ygnacio strip so I didn't have any tools to work with. I just told the crew to wait for me, and I headed back to Laredo to make a quick repair. I was right in the middle of a heavy cotton season and didn't want to waste the rest of the day.

Back at Laredo I found a piece of "flashing," the galvanized metal used to make valleys and gutters when roofing a house, and installed it in place of the plexiglass lens. I bent the piece of flashing into the identical shape as the leading edge of that wing and screwed it into place with machine screws.

It looked just fine to me, but Bob looked it over and told me it looked like something that had been done by a drunk Russian blacksmith. I really didn't think that Bob knew a thing about Russian blacksmiths, but to humor him (actually, I was trying to annoy him), I consented to make a more professionally appearing repair.

I quickly accomplished this by trimming the edges of the metal flashing with two or three layers of air-conditioning duct tape. Bob still didn't like it.

But I didn't care. I had lots of work to do and didn't have time to make pretty repairs that suited him or anybody else. I just told him that aeronautical studies had proved conclusively that air conditioning duct tape prevented the separation of the laminar flow of air across the boundary layer of the airfoil.

"Yeah, sure, smart guy," he said. I was in a hurry and didn't want to get into an argument with him, so I told him I would make a legal repair when I got time.

"Like hell," he said. "You ain't ever going to get time," and gave me one of his sour looks.

And he was right. I never did improve on that repair. I just put on fresh tape every couple of months and went right on flying the airplane forever.

That wasn't the first tree limb I hit, or the last. The more experience I got in crop-dusters, the less often I hit things, but still, I would manage to slap a tree limb every now and then.

I also hit birds from time to time. Hitting a small bird was no big deal. A small bird seldom did any damage to the aircraft, it just made a mess. One time I hit a nice, fat White-wing dove that had been stuffing himself on milo seed. That dove had come out of nowhere, diving over my propeller circle and striking the aircraft dead center in the fresh-air scoop mounted directly in front of my head. That bird splattered itself all over me and filled the inside of the cockpit with sour-mash milo seed and bird guts.

I also had some unusual bird-strikes from small birds. Blackbirds. Blackbirds are about the size of sparrows and travel about in flocks of about a zillion birds. They will fall into a field of grain and turn the ground black for acres around. When they fly, they all seem to know exactly how to fly in perfect formation. Even when making abrupt turns, they all manage to remain in formation.

If I was an anthropologist, maybe "anthropologist" is the wrong word, but anyway, if I was a person who studied birds, I would do a study on just exactly how it is that a thousand blackbirds will fly up from a field at the same instant, make an abrupt right turn at the same instant, and then make a sudden left turn, also at the same instant. How do all those tiny little brains know how to do the exact same thing at the exact same instant?

But since I'm not an anthropologist, I'll just tell you that that is exactly the way blackbirds fly. These big flocks of blackbirds will land on one side of a grain field and advance across it in "waves." They are like a military drill team. Those landing at the trailing edge of the flock will peck feverishly at the ground for about half-a-minute, then all launch out over the heads of the main flock and land on the leading edge.

The new trailing edge will then quickly follow suit. This will continue until the leading edge file will once again find itself on the trailing edge, whereupon they will launch again to take over the leading edge. It seems that each time a line of birds advances over the flock, it will have only enough time to peck at the ground in front of it for only a few inches before it is time to fly forward again.

These guys seem to know just exactly what they are doing.

When an airplane is down in a field with the flocks of blackbirds, they will usually stay out of the way by redirecting their pattern as the airplane gets nearer. But not always. More than once I have approached a big flock on the ground, convinced that they would fly out of my way at the last instant, and ended up smacking through a bunch of them.

I have had flocks of more blackbirds than I can tell about suddenly fly up right in front of my airplane. When an airplane goes through such a black cloud of birds it sounds like popcorn popping. More than once I have come back with evidence of two or three dozen bird strikes.

On one occasion, I slapped through a flock of birds that all but blotted out the sun. I think that "blotted out the sun" is a phrase out of the Bible. I'm not sure if it is, but it gives the idea that I flew through a big flock of birds. Which I did. However, it really didn't come anywhere near "blotting out the sun." This is just my way of exaggerating a story.

But I promise you that there were a lot of birds in that flock, and when I flew through them it sounded like popcorn popping in a dozen different skillets all at once.

When I got back on the ground my ground crew got into a contest to see who could count the greatest number of bird strikes. It took a lot of counting. There were splotches of blood and guts all over that airplane, and there were little tiny drumsticks, and little tiny wings, and little tiny heads, and little tiny rear-ends hanging everywhere you looked. The wing leading edges, the aileron horns, the wing struts, the landing gear struts, the wheels, the brakes, the tail-wheel assembly, the rudder cables, the flying wires, the wire cutter knives, the engine cowl, the spray booms, the spray nozzles and every other part of the airplane had little tiny bird parts hanging on it.

It was a bloody mess.

I didn't do any counting myself, but I know that all my crew agreed that there was a bird part of at least 60 different blackbirds hanging on that airplane. As you can imagine, this counting contest soon led to a big hassle, mostly in Spanish, as to what exactly was suitable evidence to be tallied as a bird strike.

The leading edge of the wing was gored with so much entrails and feathers it was hard to see where one bird ended and another began. And who was to say that a head lodged in the flying wire clevis of the horizontal stabilizer, didn't come off the same bird as a foot hanging on the pump mount bracket? It made for a long and gory debate.

My crew would have made a great bunch of trial lawyers.

I don't know what the final tally was. I know the low count was 60 birds, and as the debate continued the tally climbed. It was inevitable that someone would finally claim that he could count a hundred bird strikes, but that argument was rejected as too high by most of the debaters.

I had to agree. I really don't think I killed 100 birds all in a single three-second bird strike. But I didn't argue about it one way or the other.

Hitting small birds was no big deal. It just meant that the airplane had to be given a good scrubbing down that same day. If all that blood and gore was allowed to bake in the sun, it would adhere to the skin like a thick gummy shellac that nothing could get off.

I once hit a cattle egret, which is a medium sized bird, and it wasn't any worse than hitting a dove or quail.

The big birds were the ones to worry about. Hawks, buzzards, eagles, owls, ducks, sandhill cranes, and a few other larger size birds. At one time or another, I hit just about all of them. Most of these strikes from larger birds were glancing blows, usually resulting in death to the bird, but causing no significant damage to the aircraft. But hitting a big bird could result in major damage, and I've collided with more than one large bird that left its mark on my airplane, and left me gritting my teeth.

As a rule, I would take whatever evasive action was necessary to avoid a collision with a large bird, but that wasn't always possible. I once came over a little clump of live oaks, and a big red-tailed hawk vaulted into the air right in front of me. I didn't even have time to flinch. He didn't make it four feet out of those live oaks when he slammed dead-center into the leading edge of my wing. It was a heavy hit. He drove the leading edge back several inches and crumpled it like a bent beer can. Strangely enough, this major alteration to the airfoil had little effect on the way the aircraft flew, and it was some time before I got around to repairing the damage.

Sooner or later, all these strikes required repair, and often the repair was made with limited time and limited tools. This was one of the things that gave crop-dusters such a bad name. They often were covered with nicks and dents and unsightly repairs. Also, they smelled bad.

One evening I hit a big fat Mallard duck. At least I thought it was a Mallard. It had those pretty green and red and white feathers about its head and wings. I had seen pictures of Mallard ducks in Texas Fish & Game magazine. I also earned a Boy Scout merit badge on wildlife, or birds, or something, and one of the things I had to do was to identify the picture of a Mallard duck. So that's how I got to be such an authority on ducks.

Anyway, I think it was a Mallard. I know it was a duck. Since there was nobody else there to see the darn thing, who's to argue with me?

I was flying west of Crystal City. I was flying on aphids (midge) in wheat. I was cruising across a big, easy field that happened to have a big shallow pond right in the middle of it that was covered with wild ducks. As I got close to it, a whole flock of them got airborne and headed out across the field at the same altitude I was flying. They were headed the same general direction I was going, but on a path that intersected my course at about a 30 angle.

I was going a lot faster than the flock of ducks, and as I got closer I could see that they were going to fly dead across my nose. I was like the guy wheeling down the freeway and noticing another vehicle on the on-ramp about to merge into traffic right in front of him. I was reluctant to yield the right-of-way because that would have left an opening in my spray pattern.

But I soon saw that I was safely behind those ducks and the whole flock crossed my nose a comfortable distance before I overtook them. All the ducks passed safely across my course except one. He was the tail-end-Charlie. Actually, I could see that he too was going to make it, but not by much. I wasn't concerned because I was prepared to veer off my course and climb if I saw that he wasn't going to be clear. He passed across my nose just as I overtook him, and I could see that he would pass safely past my wing tip.

But at the last instant he spooked, and without warning veered into a hard left bank and drove right into the leading edge of my right wing. WHAM! It felt just like hitting a bag of sand. Not that I had ever hit a bag of sand, but that's what I think it would feel like if I ever did actually hit a bag of sand that just happened to be sailing across my flight path. "WHAM!"

That was one dead duck. And I am pretty sure that he was a Mallard. Not only did he look like those old pictures in Texas Fish & Game, I later pulled some pretty white and red and green feathers out of the wound he had left in my airplane.

I did a better job of fixing that damage than I had done on the landing light repair. For one thing, I wasn't in any big hurry to fix it. Although that duck had left a dent and some funny ripples in the leading edge, the airplane continued to fly just fine. Weeks later, when I had the time, I cannibalized a section of leading edge from one of the wing panels Bob had stored in The Speckled Dog Inn and installed it on my airplane.

Bob was critical of that repair too. He said it "didn't look right."

Hitting big birds could not only damage an aircraft, but also be dangerous to flight. I once had a large bird almost come through my windshield. I don't know what kind it was, and I don't know how it got through my propeller. But it did. Actually, it had been so sudden I didn't really see it. The propeller slapped something and there was an instantaneous blur and hard strike at the lower edge of my windshield. Later, on the ground, I could see where a large bird had struck the base of the windshield and deflected over the side. The windshield was cracked and the metal faring was deeply bent. There was blood and brown feathers. It was probably a hawk, but it could have been an owl. I was just glad he didn't come into the cockpit with me.

There were other bird strikes. Most were uneventful and unimportant. There was one other incident of note that was associated with birds. Chickens.

I never actually hit a chicken in flight, but it was a bunch of chickens that almost got me in serious trouble one day.

Me and a good friend of mine were spraying grain somewhere west of Dilley. My friend had warned me not to fly too close to a certain barnyard because the farmer had complained that crop-duster airplanes scared his chickens.

I didn't take this warning seriously. I had long experience in dealing with grouchy old farmers, and I had developed the bad habit of doing pretty well as I pleased. Well, I guess that grouchy old farmer had developed the same sort of bad habit, because the next time I came over his barnyard he put a 12-gauge blast of about #4 shot right square into the belly of my airplane. That old-timer sure knew how to solve a problem. I never again flew anywhere near his darn barnyard.

That was the only time I was ever shot at that I was aware of. (Not counting my earlier all-expense-paid trip to Viet Nam.)

But crop-dusters coming home with bullet holes in them was not all that uncommon. A friend of mine found a rifle slug rattling around in the belly of his airplane, and soon discovered the hole it came in through. And I knew of other similar tales from other pilots.

South Texas was just the sort of place that a man was liable to get shot at if he didn't act right. Consequently, most people acted right.

Striking a tree limb or clump of brush seldom was dangerous to flight. It just left ugly scars on an airplane. However, a pilot could get dead in a hurry by catching a wing-tip in a tree in a steep turn.

When coming out of a field it was desirable to start the turn as soon as possible in order to keep turning time to a minimum. A pilot just had to learn to roll into a turn and gain altitude in the right way, so that when those wings snapped up into the vertical position, he wasn't dragging the lower wing-tip through the trees.

Ninety-nine percent of the time a man hit something in flight it was his own fault. It came about due to carelessness, or inattention, or lack of experience.

In addition to the birds and the trees, there were plenty of other things a guy could hit. Over the years, I guess some crop-duster pilot somewhere had hit just about everything you could imagine. I've heard tales of crop-dusters hitting wind-mills, and hay-stacks, and weather-vanes, and T.V. antennas, and the exhaust stacks on farm tractors, and just about everything else you could imagine. Probably a good half of these tales were true.

But of all the things a pilot can hit, the most common, and the most feared, are high-line wires.

High-line wires are everywhere, and they are killers. And every one of them is out to get you. Without wires, crop-dusting would still be a dangerous profession, but only about a fourth as dangerous as it is in a world crisscrossed with high-line wires. But when a man flies with them everyday he comes to get used to them. He learns to live with them.

But when it's all said and done, it's the wires that will get you.




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