We fly a lot for work and so the issue of birds striking airplanes is one that I try not to dwell on too much. We also fly in and out of the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport which borders the Minnesota River and Wildlife Refuge, so large birds like Canada Geese are close by.
Most recently a Delta Airlines charter flight carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder from Minneapolis to Chicago was struck on the nose while landing. The image to the right is of a Turkish Airline plane that had a similar collision.
Thankfully, the plane landed safely, but it points out the unexpected and potentially disastrous results that can happen when an object that weighs just pounds and a multi-ton aircraft make contact in midair.
Miracle on the Hudson
More often the serious problems come when a bird or birds are sucked into the engines. This can cause engine failure. It was a flock of geese in fact, that in 2009 caused the “Miracle on the Hudson” , which if you remember documented the incredible skill and luck of Capt. Sullenberger to land his fully loaded plane on the Hudson River and have all of his passengers reach safety.
Between 1990 and 2013, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, 500 species of birds were involved in collisions with aircraft in the United States. While it is not always easy to identify the species after a collision, pigeons and doves were believed to be the most frequent victims, making up 15 percent of all accidents. Gulls, raptors, shorebirds, and waterfowl follow, in that order.
Since 1990, bird strikes have been increasing in frequency, not surprisingly along with the increase in commercial air traffic. In 2013, there were 11,315 reported strikes. This is also partly due to the increased numbers of large birds like Canada Geese and Double-crested Cormorants. Surprisingly, even with that large a number of strikes, very few actually damage airplanes. When they do, they often make the news, like the recent Delta flight.
A little more than half of all bird strikes occur right after breeding season and in early fall when birds are heading south for the winter. There are so many more immature birds in the air at that time and they don’t have the experience to know to avoid dangerous areas, like airports.
Many collisions between commercial aircraft and birds take place less than 500 feet, but the majority take place less than 3,500 feet above the ground. The highest recorded strike in the U.S. occurred at 31,300 feet.
Airports have been working to prevent or at least reduce the chance of bird strikes, by blocking off areas where birds might like to feed or hang out. Any lawn-like surfaces are magnets for Canada geese, so letting grass grow tall can help. Other airports have tried a variety of devices to scare the birds away, including gas cannons, fireworks, birds of prey and even paintball guns. A few years ago Snowy Owls showed up in large numbers in the northern tier of U.S. states. They found airports ideal for hunting rodents. Wildlife rescue groups managed to live trap many of them and relocate to safer locations – for both the birds and the planes.
Why we need Avian Radar
Thankfully the most promising solution to this problem is the development of avian radar, which is a specialized form of radar that can detect flocks of birds that have the potential of flying to near the path of a plane. With this, air traffic control can determine if a plane needs to be grounded, just as in stormy weather. I certainly hope the Minneapolis airport is using this system now, as we are flying out this afternoon and having just written this piece, my awareness of the hazards in the sky is heightened. I do envy birds their ability to fly the “friendly” skies, I will just keep my fingers crossed that we do not meet up there. I prefer to do my bird watching from the ground.