Float plane averts mid-air collision with humpback whale

Posted: Monday, August 13, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- If Petersburg pilot Rod Judy had taken off from Keku Islands seconds later than he did last week, he might have collided in mid-air with a humpback whale.

But time was on his side that day and gave him a good story instead.

Judy, a commercial pilot, flew to the islands about 100 miles south of Juneau last weekend to pick up two U.S. Forest Service employees bound for Petersburg.

The floatplane was moving on the water about 50 miles an hour and just about to lift off when a humpback whale suddenly breached in front of the aircraft.

''We were just clearing the water, and right dead ahead of us this thing came clear out of the water. We were staring right into the whale's stomach,'' passenger Burl Weller told the Juneau Empire.

''It had to be at least 15 feet above the airplane,'' Weller said. ''You could see under his tail - he had air under his tail.''

Judy banked the plane to the left, and the whale fell off to the right. Weller estimates that the whale missed the wing of the plane by 10 feet, but the pilot's version of the story puts a little more distance between the whale and the plane.

Judy estimated the whale breached about 100 feet away from the nose of the aircraft and said it did not pose a threat to the plane. But it was close enough to render Weller speechless, he said.

''The fellow in the front couldn't even talk. He was just sputtering,'' Judy said. ''It was impressive. You could see the whale's eye. I've seen them breach a lot, it's common. But Ive never seen one straight in front of the airplane that close.''

Judy said it never occurred to him a whale could breach in that area because the islands are close together and the water appears shallow.

''You wouldn't think it would be deep enough for a whale to get momentum to breach,'' he said.

Breaching whales now will officially go on record as a potential hazard to aircraft. The Forest Service is distributing a notice to its employees nationwide to be on alert for whales when landing or taking off in floatplanes, Weller said.

''This is something that could happen again. Hopefully not. Once in a lifetime is enough,'' Weller said, laughing.

While he can laugh about the incident now, he can't help but wonder 'What if?'

''If the whale would have breached one second later than what he did, we would have been his necklace,'' Weller said.

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