SPANISH FORK — Police are investigating a report that a gunman on the ground struck a personal aircraft that was flying over Utah County.
Flight instructor Michael Burton said he and a student were above southwest Springville at about 800 feet elevation last Wednesday when a bullet hit his gyroplane's propeller.
No one was injured, but Burton shakes his head when he considers how close it came to striking him or his student. The propeller that was hit is only about 2 feet from the cockpit.
Burton has avoided the south Utah County area since Wednesday but says the incident "doesn't keep me from doing what I love to do."
Burton and the student were in an area above Springville's Wal-Mart when they heard a popping sound and a "short-term vibration," Burton said.
"We felt a pop. The student looked at me and I looked at him. We couldn't figure out what it was, so we headed back to the airport," Burton said.
In the 10-minute return trip to the Spanish Fork-Springville Airport, the gyroplane made an unfamiliar whistling sound. They inspected the aircraft after they landed and found what they thought looked like a bullet hole.
The whistling sound may have been the wind beating the propeller, said Nate Oldham, manager at Air Gyro Aviation, a flight school.
"The propellers are carbon-fiber, similar to a bullet-proof vest," Oldham said.
Oldham is grateful that among all his aircraft, the one damaged during last Wednesday's flight was more rugged because it was built to land in rough terrain.
In other gyroplanes, the lack of balance in the propellers could have caused the pilot and student more serious problems midair, he said.
The gyroplane — built from a kit — is worth about $45,000. The cost of repairing the propeller could reach $400, Burton said.
Springville Police Lt. Dell Gordon said he has never investigated a case of a bullet hitting a plane in his 20 years as an officer.
Neither pilot nor student could see anyone on the ground at the time of the incident. Police also have no idea who could be responsible, and they have not yet ascertained the gyroplane was, indeed, struck with a bullet.
Burton and Oldham said that they have been in contact with a Federal Aviation Administration inspector, whose probe could become a federal investigation.
The Deseret Morning News could not reach local FAA officials for response.
A regional FAA official, based in Seattle, said late Monday evening she could not find any information on the case.
Burton doubts any gunfire at a plane would be accidental when he considers the plane's distance from the ground.
He wonders if people in southwest Springville are upset about planes in the area.
"We have had some complaints about noise," he said.
Yet people have rarely complained to police about air traffic, Gordon said.
The runway at the airport spans north-south. Pilots circle the airport in a rectangular pattern when departing or landing.
That rectangular area does not span into southwest Springville, Burton said.
About 20 aircraft — fixed-wing, helicopters, gyroplanes — use the airport each day.