Many people love birds. Most pilots regard them as something to avoid. What seems innocuous on the ground can become a projectile hurtling through the windscreen or into your turbine. According to the Associated Press, the FAA tally for all bird strikes last year could be up to 10,000 for the first time. That’s about 27 strikes every day. There were at least 57 accidents with serious damage through July 2009 and three aircraft were destroyed by birds.
That’s a lot of bird feathers. The previous high was 7,507 strikes in 2007. The increase is in large part due to increased diligence in reporting after the famous water landing of Flight 1549 which occurred a year ago January 15th. Captain C.B. Sullenberger’s decision making was as important as his stick and rudder skills. He never would have made Teterboro. During the flight reinactment (televised on TLC) by helicopter, it was easy to see that the Hudson looked like the only option at 3,000 feet. While the FAA doesn’t want to spook the flying public, it’s hard to ignore that the bird situation is getting worse. Many airports began a more aggressive campaign to keep them away since geese, particularly, are growing in number. They’re a mess on the golf course but in the pattern, the goose can really hit the (airplane) fan. To scare them, our airport began regularly firing propane cannons. An eye popping surprise in the plane since up to that point I didn’t know they existed.
Not surprisingly, this has the interest of the U.S. Air Force who created a”Feather identification program” at the Smithsonian Institution to identify species of birds that collide with aircraft by developing a new DNA database. Carla Dove (great name) heads up the program that identifies the snarge. Profiles on bird activity and regional migrating patterns are further developed with the evidence sent from every birdstrike.
Last year, I was 8 miles out for landing when I heard a Citation Jet advise he’d lost an engine. The voice had the ice-cool confidence of Captain Sullenberger. When the tower asked if he wanted to declare an emergency he simply replied “No-just sucked in a bird. Confirming runway niner”. I would have been all: “Yes -clear the place, I’d like all three runways to myself”.
Civilian aircraft aren’t built to handle a significant bird strike. A pelican brought down a Citation last year in Oklahoma City. Investigation reveled that the jet suffered damage to the wing that made the plane uncontrollable. A transport category aircraft should be able to sustain a 4 pound bird collision to the front and an 8 pound bird to the empennage. Peter Garrison from Flying Magazine calculated that a 20 pound bird struck at 200 knots is equivalent to a 420 pound object moving at 50 miles an hour. Light general aviation aircraft structures are simply not up to the task. Frequently, I’ll hear “Caution for birds in the vicinity” on the ATIS before taxiing. I’ve had to climb and descend around flocks many times during migrating season.