Local Moruya pilot survives eagle bird strike through the windscreen

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Mike Greenwood, a local Moruya pilot had a pretty lucky escape when high above Mudgee somewhere at about 5,500ft he had a Wedgetail Eagle join him, and Bobby his dog (who was actually sporting some super fine Mutt Muffs), in the cockpit of his Sportsman.

His amazing story made all the news channels just before Christmas, but if you are like me and just found out about it recently (like right now) then you can read his incredible story below. Over to you Mike!

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“Bobby my dog and I took off in a Glassair Sportsman from the Gold Coast destined for home base Moruya South Coast NSW for Christmas – 1200kms.

We’d began flying up to 10,000′ early in the trip, but were forced down to 5 & 6,000’ by solid cloud cover. We took the inland route across north of Tamworth then southward passing west of Sydney. We stopped off at Mudgee for extra fuel.

We’d been flying over three hours now heading SSE direct Moruya NE of Sydney on the left with Canberra up ahead to the right (SSW). We were cruising on autopilot at about 140 knots at about 5,500′ to stay below solid cloud, when … BANG … what seemed like an explosion (which continued with loud noise of air and engine screaming), I saw for a split second an image a large bird spread eagled right across in front of the windscreen, as it smashed straight through hitting my face. The explosion was a bird strike from a wedgetail eagle I discovered later on. This left me unable to see or hear because my face and eyes were covered in blood, and my headset was ripped off in pieces with the horrendous noise of high speed air rushing in the cockpit and with no windscreen, the engines were roaring as the plane plummeted downwards…

In the first minutes while plummeting to the ground I couldn’t see or hear anything.

Then my first glimpses through wiping the blood from the right eye was about to hit the mountains. After dodging through the mountain gaps I was fighting to get it to climb out of there so pushed everything forward – power, pitch and mixture, and kept pulling back on stick.

The problem was doing it blind and unable to see or hear airspeed – slower was better for air rushing but I didn’t want to stall. I wanted to convert the 140+ knot dive into the maximum altitude before stalling, while at the same time steering left around the first mountain then right and up over the saddle before the second bigger mountain.

Second glimpse saw possible creek landing flat over hill just passed but preferred to continue trying to get plane to climb and steering through saddle of mountains ahead. Fortunately my third glimpse through the blood in right eye was airspeed at 50 knots – perfect to level out.  I also saw tachometer at over 2700rpm so needed to back off once leveled out. That first few minutes while blind was the worst of it with deafening wind rushing, engine screaming and no headsets, while the plane was plummeting for the mountains.

It was like being in the middle of a continuous explosion. I really did not expect to survive that.

However it did occur to me that despite having to wrestle controls I was not spinning or banking so perhaps wing or tail damage not too bad. I was concentrating on mental picture of mountains to fly through the gaps from memory of glimpses through blood of right eye.

Once I stabilised the fall and got it to begin some climb I worked on clearing right eye with shirt. My decision that I had lost my left eye saved my life because then I thought “quickly stop wasting time on it” and try to clear the right side eye – which then gave me the first glimpse through the blood and saw I was about to hit the mountains – just in time.

Once out of there I knew I had a chance. I was aware of Bobby my canine co-pilot was still strapped in behind me. He was so calm which helped me focus on doing as much as possible as fast as I could. As I kept trying to clear the blood from right eye with my shirt I started to see more of instruments so could settle engine and airspeed on climb. But even being able to see more out of that eye still found all the cockpit and screens were covered in blood so struggled to get position on bloodied maps.

I thought I could see two birds jammed beside me. They later proved to be talons and pieces of one large Wedgetail Eagle.

Also with feathers, flesh and blood everywhere from the bird strike, I had no idea what was mine but I knew the left side of my face was hit.

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I also grappled with the headset plug on the roof and blindly followed the cord with my hand hoping to find  the headsets that were blasted off my head. But at the end of the cable on the floor was no headpiece, just some wires with the boom mic still hanging on and a broken ear cup. So I shouted a mayday call into it while pushing transmitter button on joystick but of course I could not see through blood on maps to give much position,  just that I was out of Mudgee southbound for Moruya. I didn’t expect it worked anyway.

Hours later at Bathurst hospital discovering that I still had my left eye was quite an unexpected bonus because I had already written it off. Still that belief did save a crash into the mountains just in the nick of time. Most of the battle I had wrestling with the controls falling into the mountains would have been because of the smashed open windscreen which was like trying to push an open bucket through the air instead of a streamlined nose cone. It acted like a parachute against the autopilot dragging the plane down to the ground.

Before the eagle bird strike I had set the auto pilot to neutral climb but not set the altitude because I was looking for a hole in the cloud ceiling to continue climbing.** (I realise that if I were resetting the AP altitude to perform the climbs then the AP could have contributed more to counteracting the fall from the broken windscreen). Also some of the battle with the flight controls was the interference from the auto-pilot servos, but this was not a problem and far better than disconnecting the auto-pilot at this stage while still flying mainly blind.

After averting initial crisis I started to climb and regain some control over aircraft. I tried to clean blood from right eye so I could start seeing more of instruments. With no headsets to communicate with I sent texts to John Cooke in USA knowing he could contact airport control and emergency.  Although it was 3am for him, we had already exchanged texts of my instrument photos earlier this flight which I had sent him for engine advice. I could see on two instruments I was still heading towards Moruya over an hour away and over mountains. I tried to steer further right towards Canberra and away from mountains while texting John.

Meanwhile I was trying to see more detail from maps on third Navigation instrument – the iPad fixed to roof. It was covered in blood.  However eventually I saw some yellow (indicating urban) behind me to my right which I was guessing maybe Bathurst, Orange or even Goulburn. So I texted new plan to John in US and tried another mayday call.

Although I had fought the auto pilot continuously because it could not hold plane up against force of air into cockpit with windshield smashed open, I knew I had to disconnect it to turn around and find airport. I was holding a high nose attitude with low airspeed and full power, pitch and mixture. This was slightly better for air rush but noise was still horrendous. I used half flaps and didn’t let speed fall below 70s trying 80 not to risk losing altitude or stalling while vision was still so poor.

On the initial crisis when trying to climb I saw speed as low as 50 after I had pulled plane up from falling. Then I needed altitude, now I just wanted to stay flying – nowhere near stall. So I disconnected autopilot and turned very carefully not to provoke any wing damage and to keep control against changing air rush. Didn’t want to force turn with unknown damage to wings and tail.

I tried to turn to north of urban area vaguely recalling airport was to north east of Bathurst – and hoped this was Bathurst.

Wow! By good luck I spotted runway in distance straight away and crossed some industrial area but was plenty high enough. I flew high over the airport and tried one last emergency call while checking best runway. No chance of seeing windsock but I assumed wind would be roughly easterly – and carefully made wide turn overhead at about 3500′. The runway was about North – South so it would be a full cross wind but the least of my concerns. I tried to make wide circuit and set up final approach for runway 35. Once on short final I could see very little but used my mind’s eye with some glimpses through wind and focused on the airspeed. I used lots of runway, very firm on the rudder and waiting and waiting for touchdown, .. but finally managed to get down OK. Yahoo !!! What a relief. My heart was pumping with adrenalin. I was looking for fire truck but only saw airport manager truck with orange light . I lifted flaps and looked for fuel problems ready to shut down and turn off fuel quickly if necessary. However I managed to taxi in and park where directed before shutting down.

I took this picture behind me to see Bobby was as calm as ever – still with his headsets on!!

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This picture was taken immediately after shutting down plane!!

Then I saw how much blood was sprayed through the cockpit, also what seemed to be two large birds jammed beside me, but were actually pieces of a large wedgetail eagle – RIP. Its talons were bigger than my hands and lethally sharp – I am grateful it did not fight me in the cockpit. Several people came up to plane and one called the ambulance. I climbed out and hugged my dog Bobby. I never panicked through all of it – because of Bobby. He calms me and I just focused on the job as fast as possible. He’s the perfect co-pilot: company without distraction. As a pilot we often need to focus fully and another passenger asking “are we there yet” really would not have helped.

I was euphoric over cheating death and believed I was fine except for left eye and side of face where the bird must have hit me.

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I briefly looked at the plane and saw no major damage to wings or tail, but totally smashed in windscreen and just minor marks around propeller. Oh now there’s my glasses!

I told people I would refuse to leave my dog if ambulance wouldn’t take him – we’d been through quite an ordeal together and I was not about to leave him now.  But the ambos were great, and also dog lovers who understood, so we went together in the ambulance to a kennel for Bobby before going to the hospital! I thank them for that as only then was I able to calm down. Eagles are actually a beautiful bird. Shame, I guess he must have hit prop first!”