An Unexpected Visitor On The Ramp


I’m getting ready to start the flight portion of my instrument training, and while I’m waiting for the weather to improve (well, deteriorate actually) I’ve been thinking about some of the experiences I had doing the training for my private pilot’s certificate. Especially with the current work going on at Stinson Municipal Airport (KSSF) re-surfacing runway 14 and doing some taxiway work, I was reminded of a time when my instructor and I nearly ran over an unexpected taxiway obstruction . . .

I, being a smart person, started my flight training just in time to do the vast majority during the height of the Texas summer. The Cessna 172 we were flying had the usual rudimentary air vents in the wing roots, but when temperatures outside the cockpit were a steady 100 degrees Fahrenheit on the ground there’s only so much that you can do. We tried to mitigate that heat as much as possible by flying a little higher than normal in search of cooler air, but no matter what we did I still left the cockpit drenched in sweat and damn near exhausted every time.


It was still fairly early in my flying career (I don’t think I had even solo’ed yet)  when I learned the benefit of keeping your eyes on the road while taxiing. We had just landed from another sweat-drenched excursion in the practice area back on runway 09, and the tower gave us the usual routing back to our parking space just south of the terminal.

GND: Cessna 81E, taxi to parking via Delta, Charlie, Alpha, cross 14

While the airport is quite large and is usually very active, that day it was surprisingly quiet. I think we were the only airplane moving on the tarmac, so the tower had just cleared us to go all the way across the airfield and back to our parking spot without needing to check in again. In the cockpit we used that time to go over the day’s lesson, debrief about what went right and what went wrong, and talk about plans for next time. Just as we crossed runway 14, I stopped us dead in our tracks because I knew something was wrong.

My CFI looked over. “What’s wrong?”

I pointed straight ahead at the taxiway. Right there, dead center on the yellow centerline stripe, was a massive tortoise.

Stinson is situated in a unique little area of San Antonio. On the east side of the field there’s a large park with a fairly wide river flowing through it that has all kinds of wildlife, and provides a great nesting ground for the various and sundry species of birds that make takeoff and landing at the airport much more interesting. Along the south side there’s a marshy stream that is perfect for turtles. And on the north side there’s a large cemetery, which is a delightfully macabre reminder that what you’re doing can get you killed. Apparently one of the turtles from the surrounding area had made its way onto the field unnoticed, and was now blocking my way to the parking spot.

I called up the tower to see if they could help us out.

81E: Stinson ground, this is 81E, there’s a turtle blocking taxiway Alpha.

There was a pause. You could almost hear the gears turning in the controller’s head as he tried to parse what he just heard.

GND: A what?

The gears hadn’t worked, apparently.

81E: A turtle, right in the center of taxiway Alpha, blocking us.

GND: Can you get around it?

Luckily, the apron wasn’t that full that day. The parking spaces near the taxiway were clear, and there was plenty of room to maneuver around the lonely turtle.

81E: Yeah, I think I can get around it.

GND: Roger 81E, caution wake turbulence, departing terrapin, taxi via Alpha to parking.

I swear I heard some laughing in the background at the end of that last call. You can’t fault the guys — it gets lonely up in that tower.

We taxied around the turtle, shut down the airplane, and watched as the ground team came out in their pickup truck to assist the turtle back to its environment.

In the end, what’s the worst that could have happened? The prop might have hit the turtle, which would have been a bad day for the turtle as well as our prop and engine and definitely put the bird in the shop for a while. Or we might have run the poor guy over with a tire, which probably wouldn’t have hurt the plane but definitely would have squished the little guy. Either way, better to stop and re-assess than to keep rolling and risk it.

Lesson learned: keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel. And be on the lookout for even the small stuff.

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