Mike Boone remembers grabbing the yoke of his student pilot’s airplane and pulling back, thinking as he did so that he was bound to hit the big buck that was standing right on the center line of the runway at Smith Reynolds Airport.
“We pulled back and just cleared him,” Boone said. “We got up in the air about 50 feet. We were were not fast enough to fly yet. We got the plane back to the runway.”
It was a close call. Other pilots haven’t been so lucky, but so far no one’s been killed.
Deer wandering onto the runway at Smith Reynolds Airport have the potential to cause “catastrophic damage” to an aircraft, officials are telling Winston-Salem leaders.
Airport officials say the solution is a change city ordinances that would allow experts to use rifles to kill about 15 deer on and around the airport property during night-time hunts.
So far, the city hasn’t said whether it will allow the hunts, which officials say can be conducted safely with no risk to people who live nearby.
“Deer are, without question, the most hazardous animal you can have in an airport environment,” wildlife biologist James Capps told city leaders during a spring meeting of the city’s Public Safety Committee. “Typically speaking, whenever they are hit by an airplane they are going to incur some type of damage.”
Most animal strikes involve birds, Capps said.
“But the small percentage that are mammals — deer, coyotes and bigger-type stuff — have a greater potential to cause catastrophic damage,” he said.
Boone’s been flying since the 1970s and has 20,000 hours under his belt. But until that night in late winter this year, he had never had such a close call.
“I was in a Cirrus SR22 and doing some dual instruction with a student in his airplane,” Boone said. “We were going to do some practice at night. It was right at dusk.”
Boone guesses he was about 1,000 feet from the buck when he first saw him.
“We were already rolling pretty good,” Boone said. “I thought he was going to move when I first saw him. We got right up to him. It happened in a brief few seconds.”
After hopping over the deer and getting back on the ground, Boone and his student were able to inspect the plane and determine there was no damage.
Mark Davidson, the director of Smith Reynolds Airport, said close calls have caused other pilots to abort takeoffs, and actual collisions have taken place between aircraft and deer after planes have landed.
In April of 2016, Davidson said, a Citation CJ2 aircraft struck a deer after it had touched down and was rolling down from the landing. The collision caused $100,000 damage to a front part of the aircraft that contains radar gear.
Last August, an aircraft taking off clipped the antlers of a deer standing on the runway, Davidson said. The pilot was able to pull up the plane to miss a direct impact with the deer. Still, the collision resulted in $25,000 damage to the aircraft.
Capps is telling city officials that wildlife officers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture can eliminate the deer at no cost to the city using rifles, but that would take a change to ordinance that do not allow their use.
“I think our agency has the expertise and ability to remedy this problem and make the environment safer,” Capps told the city’s Public Safety Committee. “We have done this at a lot of airports over the years, military as well as ... general aviation. This is not new to us.”
Airport officials hope to get the OK next month from the city to tackle the deer problem.
Capps and Davidson said that the hunters would use noise suppressors on the rifles, reducing the amount of noise they cause when fired. Capps told city officials that he’s been involved in deer culling in other urban areas with the rifles and has never had one reported by neighbors.
And its not like it would take long to eliminate the deer, the officials said.
“Fifteen deer will take two to five outings,” Capps told city officials. The hunters use infrared detection to locate the deer along with night vision scopes, he said, adding that its all done subtly, with no spotlighting or similar distractions.
Capps said the team operates in a way that is aware of its surroundings.
“We always double- and triple-check all of our targets, so we not only have a good idea about the target but what’s around it in the periphery as well,” Capps said.
Officials said a three-member team would carry out the assignment: A driver, a spotter and a shooter.
A side benefit, officials say, would be the donation of the deer meat to programs for the hungry.
It would be legal to use shotguns to kill deer, but officials say that’s not the way to do it.
“Shotguns are designed for bird hunting, and is not the proper tool for precision white-tail deer removal,” Capps said. Shotguns have a maximum range of about 40 meters, he said, but “deer in this environment won’t let you get that close to them.”
City Council Member Vivian Burke had letters sent to more than 700 people in and around the airport in late June, letting them know that the proposal to allow the rifle hunting will be back before the Public Safety Committee for consideration on Aug. 12.
If the measure makes it past committee, it would be voted on by the full city council on Aug. 19.
Burke said she’s heard only one comment from people near the airport, and that was one in favor of the plan to remove the deer.
“They do create problems,” she said. “And once they hit one of those airplanes, they can create many more problems.”
A direct hit with a deer could easily kill someone, Boone said.
“I thought we were going to hit him square on at 60 miles per hour,” Boone said, recounting his close call. “It would have destroyed the airplane. It could have hurt us. In Winston, we should not have this problem.”