There are as many as 30 million deer in the United States, and as any rural-based pilot knows, about 29 million of them seem to have a fondness for hanging around airports. “Caution: birds and deer in vicinity of runways and taxiways” is the standard mantra even at larger airfields in metropolitan areas. And while bird strikes occur more frequently and tend to garner more pilot concern, slamming into a 200-pound whitetail is far more likely to cripple an aircraft.
Case in point: On Feb. 1, 2006, a Cessna 172 collided with a deer while attempting to land at Bessemer Airport in Bessemer, Ala. The pilot diverted to Birmingham International Airport and made a forced landing. The airplane was substantially damaged.
The pilot left Drake Field in Fayetteville, Ark., at 5:45 p.m. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the three-hour nighttime flight to Bessemer. At about 8:45 p.m., the pilot entered the traffic pattern for Runway 5.
“About 10 feet above the ground, two deer came into the landing light from the left,” stated the pilot. “I proceeded to go around. As I started to pull up and climb, the left main gear contacted one of the deer. I continued the climb to a safe altitude and cleaned up the aircraft. I looked outside to inspect the left main gear to find it severely damaged.”
Knowing a rough landing lay ahead, the pilot chose to divert to Birmingham International. He was vectored for a visual approach to Runway 36. He touched down on the right main gear and held the airplane off the ground as long as possible. When the left wing and stabilizer eventually contacted the pavement, the aircraft veered off the left side of the runway before coming to a stop.
The NTSB’s probable cause finding contained no surprises: The accident was caused by an in-flight collision with a deer during a go-around, which resulted in damage to the left main landing gear and subsequent collapse of the left main gear.
According to the FAA’s National Wildlife Strike Database, 796 pilots have reported deer strikes since its inception in 1990—nearly 50 per year on average. The actual number is probably five times higher, given that an estimated 80 percent of wildlife strikes go unreported. And while accidents related to wildlife impacts are rarely fatal (nine deaths since 1990), they can result in serious injury and substantial aircraft damage. According to the FAA, a run-in with an adult deer will set you back $96,800 in repair costs, on average.
So what can we pilots do to decrease the risk? First, know where the hazards are greatest. The FAA’s Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) lists warnings about deer populations in the vicinity of airports. [AOPA members can find the same information in AOPA’s Airport Directory Online.] Second, know when the risk is highest. Deer tend to be most active around dusk and after dark—the same time they’re hardest to see. If you fly during these times, be extra vigilant, especially during takeoff and landing. Don’t lock your focus on the runway centerline; scan the edges looking for curious critters out for an evening stroll. And remember that deer tend to become mesmerized by bright landing lights and droning engines, which means the fear of becoming venison cutlets isn’t likely to get them out of your way.
Lastly, if you do come in contact with deer or other wildlife, first and foremost maintain control of the aircraft. Bring the airplane to a controlled stop or, if airborne, stabilize the aircraft and assess the damage. The pilot in the accident described above maintained composure and wisely opted to divert to an airport better equipped to handle an emergency landing. He followed textbook procedures and, thankfully, walked away from the aircraft uninjured. The status of the gear-mangling deer remains unknown.