Every other year or so, I”d fly a C-5 mission to the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral, FL, in support of the space shuttle program. Two features of the Strip stand out, the width of the runway, and the creature that lurks behind the parking pad.
The Strip runway is 300 feet wide, which is the widest I”ve landed on. Most runways are 200 feet wide. This creates an optical illusion since, from experience; your brain still thinks you are landing on a 200 foot-wide runway. This causes the pilot to flare high thinking he is about to touch down when he is actually 50 percent higher than he thinks he is. That can cause the airplane to drop heavily onto the runway.
But the most interesting feature of the Strip is the creature – an alligator that lives under a small bridge that spans a thin, ten-foot wide, estuary, not more than a large ditch, that runs from the local bay to within about fifty feet of the rear of the aircraft parking pad.
As the loadmasters would start the download, we pilots would walk over to say hello to the gator, a reptilian monster about 10 feet long from nose to tail. We would usually find him sunning himself on the near bank facing the airplane. While his body would not move at our approach, his eyes would track us, warily. My eyes would fix on him, too, warily. He seemed docile enough, but I would skirt him uneasily by twenty feet or so to reach the bridge right next to his sunning spot from which I could look down on him from relative safety.
On one trip I saw validation for my instinctive wariness. A park ranger had come to greet us on our arrival and told us he had picked up a road-kill opossum that was in the back of his truck. He asked if we”d like to see him feed it to the gator.
Not wanting to miss this we lined up on the rail of the small bridge. When the ranger held up the opossum, the gator moved slowly off his sunning pad and slid into the water about six feet below us, his head raised out of the water aiming his snout at the opossum. He had apparently done this before. The ranger swung the dead animal back briefly and tossed it up lightly into the air over the reptile where it paused on its upward arc and began to fall.
What happened next chills me still and haunts my dreams. The opossum descended about two feet to the right of the monster”s head. Suddenly the gator”s head had moved that distance to catch the opossum in its jaws…but I never saw it move. Somehow the two-foot move of the head was so fast it never registered in my brain, as if someone had cut and spliced a film to remove the motion.
The gator paused for a second or two with the opossum clamped firmly at the end of his snout. I think he did that to let the terror of his deadly quickness sink into my mind. Then he flipped his head upward releasing the opossum that turned one full flip and descended, terribly, into the now open jaws of the reptile that snapped shut as the animal disappeared into his throat. The opossum”s tail hung limply from the gator”s mouth at the jaw hinge as the reptile slowly slid back into the water. I remained motionless and speechless for several moments as a primal terror seized my mind.
I recalled this Jurassic moment years later when a spate of alligator attacks occurred around Florida ponds. In one, a female jogger had stopped to sit next to a pond when a gator suddenly thrashed out of the pond and dragged the woman under water, drowning her.
Gators and crocs, mercifully, do not dismember their victims in the initial attack; they merely take them underwater and hold on firmly until the prey drowns. Then the terrible work begins. The reptile seizes a limb in its powerful jaws and begins rolling and thrashing to tear it loose to be consumed. Then it moves on to another limb, then to the head, then, finally, to the torso.
After this alligator display, I have an appreciation of how gators and crocs have survived since the age of dinosaurs. They are perfectly honed to their terrible task that includes a powerful tail that can knock down prey on land.
I never again went within 40 feet of my reptilian friend in subsequent Skid Strip missions.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.