By Staff Writer | April 1, 2009
Shandscair EMS pilot Don Irving didn’t just survive a bird strike that obliterated his AW109 windscreen and injured him in flight. He managed to finish the mission and get everyone safely back on ground. "I’ve been a flight instructor," Irving said. "So I just talked myself through the problem, like any flight instructor would."
The problem occurred on the night of Thursday, March 5. Irving was flying the Shandscair Agusta A109 containing an unconscious trauma patient and two medical personnel to the Shands at the University of Florida medical facility in Gainesville, Fla. At about 8:10 p.m., at 700 feet altitude and with a windspeed of 160 mph, a duck hit the A109’s windscreen as it approached the hospital. The bird shattered the glass into thousands of fragments, and then struck Irving, cutting his face and injuring one eye. The duck also moved a number of switches on the overhead control panel before ending up in the rear of the aircraft. Apparently it landed, momentum spent, at one of the startled crewmembers’ feet.
"The windshield exploded in front of my eyes," Irving said. "I never saw the strike coming. There was no warning whatsoever." Blasted by a 160 mph wind, the Shandscair pilot was unable to communicate with the rest of the crew or the ground, because the duck impact had also damaged his microphone. So he did what any seasoned pilot—and Irving has 35 years’ flying experience—would do. He took a deep breath and surveyed the damage. "After the initial shock wore off, I said to myself, ‘Okay, remember the basics; fly the aircraft!’ So I did that."
Despite the damage, Irving’s inspection revealed that the A109 was still flyable. So he decided to land the damaged helicopter at their base near the hospital, rather than on the roof as originally planned. Staying calm despite the chaos in the cockpit, the injured pilot brought the aircraft into a standard, steep approach. Once on the ground, a waiting ambulance whisked the patient and the crew off to be checked out. "The next thing I know, I’m just standing there by myself," Irving said. So he went over to the base and found someone to help him bring the damaged helicopter into its hangar. "My uncle then came and took me home," Irving said. "He didn’t think I should be driving right after what happened."
Today, Don Irving is back to flying, as is the repaired aircraft. "If anything, [the event] reinforced all the training I’ve received through the years," Irving said. "Don’t do anything crazy, and I didn’t."