On a boys trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest, everything was fine, until it wasn’t
EVERYTHING WAS JUST FINE, WHEN ALL OF A SUDDEN ...
Not just anybody can join this group. We’ve been meeting for close to 30 years, and we guard admission with diligence. To become a member, you must be a man who looks good on paper, but be a bit of a mess in real life. Turns out, there are a lot of us.
In the early 1990s, this group usually met at my house because I had three kids, no wife and possessed pots and pans. I served the same meal each time. Though some in our group had impressive Ivy League pedigrees, their state of affairs in those days could be characterized as “unsettled.”
My youngest daughter, Kelly, then a teenager, would wait until some alcohol had had its effect and then descend from her room to flirt and sell subscriptions to magazines nobody ever heard of, or ads for the high school yearbook. She named our group “The Men of No Particular Ambition.”
In the intervening three decades, everybody has married and, to a certain extent, grown up. We are plastic surgeons and lawyers, one former NFL player, and airline captains. We still look good on paper, and not too good in real life.
So it was with high anticipation the six MONPA members signed up for a night in New Orleans. The plan was for me to fly our Premier jet from Tampa to New Orleans Lakefront Airport on a Sunday. It was Jazz Fest. With tongue in cheek, we decided to apportion responsibilities as follows: The plastic surgeon was in charge of laceration repair and antibiotics, the lawyer in charge of bail money and legal counsel, the American Airlines captain in charge of ground transportation (Uber), the JetBlue captain in charge of Champagne for the flight, and the Atlas first officer in charge of entertainment. I was in charge of flight planning, safe conduct of the flight and paying for everything other than gas.
A 1330 show for a 1400 go was planned. I had chosen the “overland” route, northwest to a fix near Tallahassee, Florida (SZW), and then pretty much west to Semmes VOR (SJI) and the SLIDD2 arrival into New Orleans. Surprisingly, this was only four minutes longer than the overwater route across the Gulf of Mexico, although it was 56 nautical miles longer.
Tom, the American Airlines captain, was awarded the right seat; either Jason (JetBlue) or Andy (Atlas) was going to get the privilege on the way home, assuming we all survived dinner at Galatoire’s and music at a venue called Snug Harbor.
We were in high spirits as I briefed the emergency exit and the airstair door handle.
There are six passenger seats in a Premier; a club seating arrangement sits forward of two back seats. Andy sat backward-facing on the right, Wyatt the surgeon and Kevin the attorney sat in the forward-facing seats. Jason sat in the back — a good place from which to shoot some video and look for his house on climb-out.
We were given the ENDED7 departure, which is pretty much a straight out from Runway 1R, with instructions to climb to 6,000 feet. At 1400 on the dot, we taxied onto
Runway 1R and I brought up the power. Though we were only a few hundred pounds under max takeoff weight, the airplane climbed gladly. I was sure my airline friends were impressed.
With Tom running the radios, we were soon turned over to Jacksonville Center and told to navigate direct to ENDED and climb to 12,000 feet. I pushed the “direct to” button on the FMS and lifted my head to the glareshield to engage the nav mode. Then I moved my hand to the right to set 12,000 in the altitude pre-select. As I did so, I thought I saw a flicker of white objects just at the bottom of the windshield.
We hit something. There was commotion in the back. “Bird strike,” said Jason. Andy released his seat belt and came forward, kneeling between Tom and me. “Looks like a bird hit the right wing, close to the fuselage,” he said.
I looked at our engine instruments. N1 and N2 were normal. There was no smell of ingested bird in the bleed air. The airplane remained pressurized as we continued to climb. I reduced power from max continuous. If part of the airplane was about to fall off, there was no need to go fast.
I was stunned — as in that feeling immediately after an automobile accident. It was quiet. We continued the climb. Jacksonville cleared us to Flight Level 260. Everyone seemed calm. Only later did it become obvious that outward appearances belied inward emotion.
I gathered the airline guys up front. No obvious damage to the airplane could be seen, but there was blood on top of the wing. I said, “Let’s break this into two parts: safety first, then convenience.” The airline folks are used to carrying on to their destination after a bird strike if everything is functioning normally. Usually maintenance is available at the destination, and passengers have paid for tickets to get them to where they are going. I told Jacksonville that I’d like to level off at Flight Level 240 while we figured out what to do. I knew, and had briefed Tom before takeoff, that we were over weight for landing. With no immediate danger, we had time to deliberate and to burn gas.
The second issue was convenience. Though everybody was looking forward to a night in New Orleans, we all lived in Tampa Bay. The airplane is based at Signature, right next to the Textron service center. Reluctantly, I decided to head home. I asked the pilots to inform the nonpilot passengers.
After landing, we got out to examine the damage. It was heartbreakingly impressive. We went into the FBO and opened the Champagne and sat there, giddy like kids who had rolled their dad’s car. Wyatt said that when he heard we had hit birds, he thought, “Oh, no, we’re going in the Hudson, even though it is two hours away.” Kevin said, “You mean Hudson, Florida.”
Jason, who flies for JetBlue, opened his phone and the video he was taking. He had captured the strike. It was a pelican — a big bird indeed. They weigh 8 to 10 pounds; the event was the equivalent of a bowling ball hitting the airplane at 290 mph. It looked as if we were about 5,000 feet in the air. Spellbound, we watched the video over and over. The two bottles of Champagne disappeared. We decided to go to a New Orleans-themed restaurant in Tampa.
The volume (liters) of alcohol consumption and the volume (decibels) of the gaiety gave evidence of everyone’s relief. We might be experienced aviators and professionals, but that sudden bang shook us all. Andy said, “I was glad when the gear came down. I wasn’t sure if the bird had hit down there too.”