Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sharing The Sky

The birds were using the sky long before we pilots were

Although birds will take evasive action to avoid us, and lights can make us more conspicuous, there are times when their and our best efforts aren't good enough. The iconic bird strike incident was in 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 was forced to ditch in the Hudson River within minutes of striking birds after it had taken off from LaGuardia Airport.

During the latter part of April, I lost count of how many times I was asked, "Did you ever have a bird strike while flying?" The reason was that the mixing of birds and airplanes was very much in the public consciousness after two emergency landings at area airports. Delta flight 1063, a Boeing 757, was forced to make an emergency return to New York's Kennedy Airport after a bird strike caused an engine failure. A few days later, a JetBlue Embraer 190 was taking off from the airport at which I'm based, Westchester County Airport (HPN), on a flight to West Palm Beach, Fla. Just after liftoff, when only a few hundred feet off the ground, flight 571 struck two geese. The regional jet made a safe emergency landing with no injuries to the 58 on board. The ATIS at HPN always warns of "bird activity in the vicinity," but it's rare to actually spot any while airborne, and bird strikes are even rarer.

Just a few days after the JetBlue incident, I had the dubious pleasure of flying past the nearby airport at Bridgeport, Conn., just as the local controller was busy warning an arriving aircraft about "a large flock of geese" soaring between 1,000 and 2,000 feet in the vicinity of the traffic pattern. No matter how hard we tried, neither my passenger nor I could spot the "large flock of geese."

Bird Strike Committee USA is an organization designed to help deal with bird strikes and other wildlife issues. It's led by personnel from the FAA, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, and industry. Annual meetings are attended by everyone from AOPA to the NTSB and bird strike organizations from more than 20 countries. The 2012 meeting will be in August in Memphis, Tenn. According to the committee's statistics, about 10,000 bird and other wildlife strikes were reported for U.S. civil aircraft in 2011. The Air Force recorded about 4,500 bird strikes in 2011. From 1990 through 2010, 431 different species of birds were involved in civil aircraft strikes in the U.S.

Since April 2010, there have been more than 400 bird strikes at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, 280 at New York's LaGuardia, 450 at Kennedy, and 185 at Los Angeles International. According to the Bird Strike Committee's statistics, the collision of a Canada goose weighing 12 pounds and an aircraft traveling at 150 miles per hour, generates the kinetic energy of a 1,000-pound weight dropped from 10 feet.

The U.S. Air Force has developed the United States Avian Hazard Advisory System. Most pilots probably have never heard of it, but it's available for anyone to use at It's a system used for bird-strike risk planning. Using radar and predictive modeling, bird activity is monitored, and forecasts of bird-strike risks are prepared.

It was developed because the Air Force needed a way for its flight planners and pilots to factor bird activity into their decisions about flight routes. Bird risks are plotted on an hour-by-hour basis, and also on a longer-term trend basis for the next 12 hours, 24 hours or longer.

While some bird strikes are not serious enough to be reported and investigated, the NTSB has conducted numerous bird strike investigations over the years.


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