When Two Worlds Collide

geese at airport

Birds have dominated the earth’s airy domain for eons. We are the newcomers, having relied on them for inspiration and insights into our own species’ dreams of flight. Without birds, there would have been no ancient myth of Daedalus and Icarus, no model for Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine (1), and no example for Orville and Wilbur Wright to study when developing their airplanes (2).

Unfortunately, as human reach has expanded towards the sky, so have the number of collisions with our feathered neighbors. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), more than 140,000 bird strikes with civil aircraft have occurred since 1990, and the number of hits are increasing annually (3). Several factors may be resulting in the upward trend of incidents. For starters, wildlife protection measures are working to safeguard more birds, which in turn accounts for more birds in the air (4, 5). The number of aircraft also continues to increase, while advances in quieter aircraft technology may be making the birds more susceptible targets (6). One, too, must consider the improvements in reporting such strikes over the past few decades (7, 8).

Greater Awareness of the Damaging Potential

Bird strikes pose serious problems for all parties concerned. They result in almost certain death to the feathered animal thrust against the plane’s hull or pulled into its engine. For human passengers, the results can range from minor or no aircraft damage to a downed flight and fatalities, though the latter is rare. The FAA-co-sponsored Bird Strike Committee USA indicates that since 1960, such impact events have been responsible for more than 60 “major accidents” in the U.S. and over 260 fatalities (9). Also, commercial aircraft damage (from minor to catastrophic) now exceeds globally $1.2 billion per year for the airline industry (10).

Of course, the anniversary of the most famous incident involving a bird strike is quickly approaching, the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson”. On the afternoon of January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after departing from New York City’s La Guardia Airport. Damage to the Airbus A320’s twin engines, both located under the aircraft’s wings, forced the plane to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Remarkably, thanks to the heroics of pilot Chesley Sullenberger and his crew, no one died (11). The geese, of course, were not so lucky.

Identifying Problems and Providing Solutions

Although bird strikes are not new—the Wright Brothers reportedly had their own incident (12)—the “Miracle on the Hudson” has put a spotlight on the issue, particularly on the role large birds such as Canada geese play. The concern is understandable, though smaller avian species can be problematic. For instance, of all bird species in the U.S., the mourning dove resulted in the highest reports of aircraft bird strikes throughout the 1990 – 2013 period. But of those occurrences, just 3% involved any damage (13). Fortunately, impact events with Canada geese and turkey vultures occurred less often than those related to smaller species such as the mourning dove, American kestrel, European starling, and barn swallow, for both of the larger species involved significantly higher incidences of damage (50% and 52% respectively) (14). Nonetheless, a large flock of small birds can still cause serious issues.

Government agencies, aircraft manufacturers, airline industry officials, wildlife organizations, and scientists are continuing their work to prevent bird strike incidents. For instance, airports and the areas surrounding them are monitored so that landscapes and structures do not become breeding grounds or gathering spots for migrating birds. In some cases the birds have to be driven out, using specially trained dogs or falcons. Occasionally, fowl need to be forcefully removed from the premises and exterminated. Less intrusive means are fortunately at our disposal, too. Radar designed to detect birds is becoming increasingly available, and is being used for improved navigation (15, 16, 17, 18). The ideal approach is one that ensures the safe coexistence of both birds and humans in the skies with minimal inconvenience to either.

Sources:

  1. Stimson, R., “Da Vinci’s Aerodynamics”, The Wright Stories: http://wrightstories.com/da-vincis-aerodynamics/.
  2. Stimson, R.
  3. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA: http://www.birdstrike.org/commlink/top_ten.htm.
  4. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA.
  5. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.) “What is a bird strike? How can we keep planes safe from them in the future?”, 1/15/2009. Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-a-bird-strike/
  6. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.).
  7. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.).
  8. United States Federal Aviation Administration. “Fact Sheet – The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program”, 4/9/2014. FAA: http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=14393.
  9. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA.
  10. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA.
  11. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.).
  12. Stimson, R. “Bird Strikes”, The Wright Stories: http://wrightstories.com/bird-strikes/.
  13. Dolbeer, R.A., Wright, S.E., Weller, J.R., and Begier, M.J. “Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990 – 2013”, Federal Aviation Administration National Wildlife Strike Database Serial Report Number 20, Washington, D.C.: FAA & USDA, July 2014. p. 59.
  14. Dolbeer, R.A., Wright, S.E., Weller, J.R., and Begier, M.J.
  15. “Top 10 Bird Strike Myths”, Bird Strike Committee USA
  16. Borrell, B. (interview with Dolbeer, R.),
  17. United States Federal Aviation Administration. “Fact Sheet – The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program”.
  18. Dolbeer, R.A., Wright, S.E., Weller, J.R., and Begier, M.J.
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