My next training milestone was my first night solo after having 4.5 hours of solo time and 5.9 hours of night instruction. It was November 18th 1999, and a beautiful night here in Bellingham Washington. I met with my instructor, did a little groundwork and out to the plane I went to start my pre-flight.
Everything was going great. Pre-flight, Taxi, Runup, all went off without a hitch, and it was time to take to the sky. I taxied into position, added full power, checked the oil pressure in the green, and began rolling down the runway.
I can picture climbing out, looking around and seeing the lights of the city and freeway thinking how peaceful it is up there. An hour of touch and goes, and I would be able to log another great first memory.
I maneuvered my Cessna 172 onto final for runway 34, for my sixth touch and go, this time being followed by a Cessna Caravan. I brought the plane down and landed safely. As I was bringing the flaps up, Bellingham tower gave me a call, telling me to expedite for a caravan on short final. Adding full power, I began my climb out. I planed on doing a full stop after the next pattern.
As I was climbing out, I heard the loudest bang a pilot ever wants to hear. I remember seeing something white or gray light up in front of me. My engine power went immediately to idle. I gave the tower a call and told them “I have hit a bird, lost engine power and need to make an emergency landing”.
My altimeter reported 800 feet msl, which at Bellingham is 600 agl. I had to make a decision and I had to do it fast. I began looking for a spot to land. Because it was night I couldn’t remember if it was an open field or a building in front of me. I had to choose either landing on I-5, or back at the airport.
I thought about how I was always told not to try to land back at the airport, because too many pilots die trying that. After one more look at my altimeter and the busy freeway I chose to fly back to the airport.
I was able to get the plane lined back up with 16 and noticed that the Caravan that had landed behind me was still rolling down the runway towards me. Tower informed the Caravan of my situation and he cleared the runway.
Having the runway made, and on centerline I was getting ready to put in some flaps when all of a sudden everything got really quiet. The only noise I herd was the sound of the wind passing by my plane and the sound of my heart beating out of my chest.
The engine had totally stopped now. With the propeller stuck in front of me motionless, I really started to feel my pulse rate and blood pressure sky rocket.
This was something I had practiced with my instructor many times and was informed that this is a pilot’s worse nightmare and a worse case scenario coming true.
I brought the plane down and greased it on the runway. The landing I did during the emergency was better than all of the previous six. I couldn’t believe it. As plane rolled down the runway I tried to make it off the next taxiway. I stopped 15 feet short.
The tower then closed the airport and I began going through my shutdown checklist. By this time the fire department had rolled up to the plane with all of their lights flashing. It looked like a scene from a movie.
I got out to take a look at the damage. The front of the plane had feather and blood all over it. The fire department helped me push the plane off the runway, and gave me a ride to the terminal to get a hold of my instructor and the mechanic.
While I was waiting for them to arrive I paid a visit up to the tower to thank the controller for all of his help. We discussed what had happened. He had the times recorded: It was 38 after the hour when I called him on the radio to declare an emergency and it was 39 after the hour when I was on the ground. One minute is what I had, to do what I needed to do, to get to the ground safely.
What I had hit was a duck, the fire department had picked it up off the center of the runway, and it appeared that I had hit it broad side. The damage to the plane was on the front air intake for the carb.
According to the mechanic, I had hit the duck broad side. It passed between the prop and the front of the plane, hitting the air intake. The duck had totally missed the prop, but it had hit so hard it damaged the metal and foam covering the air intake.
I had survived my first and hopefully last true emergency as a pilot. I know this all sounds unbelievable and all that couldn’t have happened, but every last detail is true. I believe everyone that was involved will never forget the events that happened to me on my first night solo. I would like to say thank you to all that assisted me.