The Skipper, the eagle, and the really bad decision
Air Facts Journal

Wisdom is born from experience.

Experience is often born from a lack of wisdom.

So there I was . . . .

It was 5:45am on Memorial Day Saturday and my buddy, Hans, just arrived at my hangar in Forest Lake, MN (25D) for our planned 6:00am departure to Madelaine Island, WI (4R5). It was a perfect morning to fly.  Clear skies, slight breeze out of the South, and an air temperature of 48 degrees as we climbed into the cockpit of my trusty Beechcraft Skipper.  Based on weight and balance calculations, I filled the Skipper only to the tabs (19 gallons of fuel).  The Skipper burns 6.5gph so we had plenty for our first leg – an eighty minute flight to Ashland, WI (ASX) assuming no unexpected headwinds.

beech skipper

The Skipper burns 6.5gph at just over 100kts.

For those who have never been to Madelaine Island (4R5), I highly recommend it.  If you find yourself in the upper Midwest, perhaps going to or from Oshkosh, it is a great place to spend a few hours or a few days.  The FBO has a number of bicycles to make the 1.5 mile trek into town if you want to get there quicker than walking.  Once in town you can grab a bite to eat and then rent a Vespa and scoot around this quaint little island in the Apostle Islands.  If the weather is clear, I recommend flying a scenic loop out around all of the Apostle Islands before heading on your way.  There is no fuel on Madelaine, but Ashland, WI (ASX) is a short 13 miles to the southwest.

As we taxied down the taxiway to depart on runway 13, Hans pointed over and said, “Will you look at that, a bald eagle.”  Sure enough, standing just off the runway on the infield grass, at about the exact location I expect to be starting my rotation, stood a large bald eagle.  “S##t!”, I thought. Won’t the sound of my engine while taxiing scare him off? Should I continue my taxi all the way to the end of runway 13 and then back-taxi the entire runway just to scare him off and then taxi all the way back down again?  If I do that, how will it affect my fuel calculation?  If I apply full throttle on takeoff surely the sound will scare him and he’ll fly away from the runway and the sound of the airplane. Maybe my run-up will scare him off.  This was all wishful thinking and these are the thoughts going through my head as we continued to taxi to the take-off end of runway 13.

I applied my brakes, ran the throttle up to 1,700rpm, and went through my takeoff checklist. The eagle was still there. Screw-it, I thought. He’ll take-off the other way as the sound of my plane approaches.  I made my radio calls and pulled onto the runway. Full throttle and a little right rudder and we were rolling.  The eagle still had not moved.  I was now focused on the airplane, primarily remaining straight down the runway and watching my airspeed knowing that I would rotate at around 65 knots.  The speed climbed, 20 knots . . . 30 knots, I glance up and the eagle is still there.  40 knots, he’s still there and now only about 200 feet in front of me.  50 knots, 60 knots – I’m focused on my rotation at this point.

At 65 knots I rotate the nose up and the eagle spreads his wings (at least a 7ft. wingspan) and takes off less than 100ft in front of me.  We are both airborne, centered on the runway, on a heading of 130 degrees, but I’m going about 55 knots faster than he is! I must avoid hitting him with the propeller. He banks 45 degrees to the right.  With a wingspan of over 7ft. he was probably blocking 5ft. of vertical space directly in front of my right wing.  If I hit him with my wing we will probably be fine, but then I will likely hurt or even kill the eagle.  Will the DNR show up at my door? PETA? I bank slightly left to avoid hitting him with the right wing.  My stall horn goes off!  Level wings, nose down (I was already at full throttle)!  I couldn’t have been 30ft. off the ground to begin with, so if I was not previously still in ground effect, I was back there now. We missed him. We were now flying straight and level at about 10 feet off the runway, albeit slightly left of centerline.

Did I mention that we have high power lines about ¼ mile off the end of runway 13?  The power lines are not exactly perpendicular to the runway which is good.  We missed the eagle and now the power lines were front and center.  A slight bank to the right bought us a good deal more distance and we easily cleared them.  An air temperature of a cool 48 degrees probably helped some.

We were now on our way.

Hans never said a word the entire time.  I looked over to him and said, “Next time we’ll back-taxi the runway.”

Wisdom is born from experience.

Experience is often born from a lack of wisdom.

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