It’s a Bird! Wildlife Pose Threat to Planes

December 20, 2011

By David Akana and Ashley Sabin

Air travelers have dreaded flying in the past decade mostly because of terrorism threats. But today, they are faced with another kind of growing threat: Collisions between wildlife and airplanes.

According to new data from the Federal Aviation Administration, such collisions have increased from an average of 18 a day in 2000 to 30 per day in 2010. Twenty years ago, there were just six wildlife strikes a day.

Wildlife strikes put people at risk. Since 2000, the data show, 127 people have been injured in collisions between wildlife and planes, and 18 people have been killed.

With the bird population projected to increase in North America and yearly flights on the increase, more wildlife strikes are anticipated.

This trend could be reversed with increase awareness and better reporting of bird strikes.

“One of the reasons why the reported strikes in the database have increased is just because of stronger awareness in the public and within the aviation industry about how important it is to report strikes. We cannot fix the problem of wildlife strike if we don’t know the cause,” says Carol Bannerman, spokeswoman for the Wildlife Services program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Wildlife collisions are more frequent with commercial aircraft than with military, private or business aircrafts, FAA data shows.

The most gripping example of a collision between birds and a commercial flight in recent years involved US Airways Flight 1549 on Jan. 15, 2009. It struck several Canada geese upon departing from LaGuardia Airport in New York. Capt. Chesley Sullenberger was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River.

iPhone photo by Janis Krums

No one was killed in that “Miracle on the Hudson.” But the incident rattled airline passengers across the country.

“I am scared to death. I never imagined that birds could bring down a plane. The first time I became aware of it was in 2009 when the US Airways flight landed in the Hudson River in New York. Every time I fly, I just pray that it would not happen to our plane,” said 25-year-old Linda Jinya, who recently flew from Houston to Dulles International airport.

Bannerman said that incident brought attention to the threat that birds can pose to planes.

“The landing of Flight 1549 into the Hudson River was a graphic example to the public that birds or other wildlife can have an impact on an airplane and on air safety,” Bannerman said.

“This is something that the FAA and USDA Wildlife Services have been working on since the 1980s. But I think it caused people to begin to understand that wildlife strikes can be a major problem to aviation.”

The FAA Wildlife Strike Database

The incident involving Flight 1549 is recorded in the FAA’s Wildlife Strike Database. The database contains records on about 130,000 reported wildlife strikes since 1990.

An analysis of the FAA database revealed that:

* $600 million is lost annually due to wildlife strikes with civil aircrafts in the U.S.

* Wildlife collisions with commercial flights often occur at or below 3,500 feet – that is, when planes are departing and landing and a relatively close to the ground.

* Birds were involved in 97.2 percent of the reported strikes, mammals in 2.3 percent, bats in 0.4 percent and reptiles in 0.1 percent.

* Gulls, doves, American kestrel and blackbirds are the four common species involved in strikes.

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Denver International recorded the most wildlife strikes (424) of any U.S. airport in 2010. Then came Dallas-Fort Worth (320), Chicago O’Hare (248), New York’s JFK International (220), and the Sacramento, Calif., airport (204).

Among Virginia airport, Dulles International was tops in 2010 with 103 wildlife strikes, followed by Norfolk International (27), Reagan National (26), Newport News/Williamsburg (24) and Richmond International (22).

‘A look of horror on its face’

Pilots have documented horrific stories of collisions with wildlife. Bob Behren, a former U.S. Air Force pilot with more than 30 years of flight experience, almost lost his life when his aircraft was struck by a vulture in 2009 while flying over Port St Lucie County International Airport in Florida.

“With virtually no warning, a hellish-looking apparition pounced on my Aerostar like a monster in a 3-D horror movie. A huge turkey vulture with, it seemed, a look of horror on its face and its 6-foot wings spreading over virtually the entire windshield, crashed into me at 200 mph,” Behren wrote in the TCPalm, the newspaper serving Florida’s Treasure Coast and Palm Beaches.

“I instinctively ducked just before the impact. I felt like I had been hit by a baseball bat on the right side of my face, right shoulder and arm, leaving me badly dazed. I found myself looking at – and through – a hole in the windshield almost 3 feet in diameter.”

Birds are not the only wildlife problem for aircraft. Deer and reptiles wandering onto runways can also create serious problem for departing and landing aircraft.

An unidentified pilot taking off from Mason County airport in West Virginia in 2003 struck a deer. The plane’s nose wheel was destroyed, and the aircraft skidded off the runway. While the pilot escaped uninjured, the aircraft was destroyed by a post-impact fire.

Some air travelers have expressed deep worries with the increase in collision between wildlife and aircraft, even though aviation experts argue that air travel remains the safest means of transportation.

“There is really nothing that I can do about it. It is one of those things that I cannot control. I just wish that it would never happen to me when I am flying. But it is not to say that I underestimate the impact that bird strikes can cause a plane,” said Joe Wilson, a 49-year-old passenger traveling from Dulles to JFK in December.

‘Report Wildlife Strikes’ campaign

With wildlife collisions on the rise, efforts are under way to reduce the frequency and thereby mitigate the risk to air travelers.

“We are conducting research on a number of different ways to reduce hazards at and around airports,” Bannerman said.

“For example, our agents are undertaking research on whether or not radar can be used to understand bird patterns at airports. We are also doing research on how to manage insects and birds. We are also looking at different kinds of grasses that would make airports less attractive to wildlife.

“Another extremely exciting research is to create a writing device on an airplane that can be used to detect and avoid birds during flights. So the mitigation methods are a combination of habitat and environmental management as well as research.”

In addition to research, public awareness campaigns are being conducted by the USDA Wildlife Services, the FAA and private organizations.

Several government agencies and groups have formed the Bird Strike Committee USA to promote research and solutions on the problem. The committee’s next meeting is in August in Memphis.

Here is the data used in this article:

About the data

The data for this story was downloaded from the Federal Aviation Administration [http://wildlife-mitigation.tc.faa.gov/wildlife/default.aspx].

The FAA Wildlife Strike Database contains records on about 130,000 reported wildlife strikes since 1990. Each record has 93 fields, including the airline operator, airport, aircraft type, wildlife involved and general information pertinent to the report. Injuries and fatalities were also included.

The FAA notes that “strike reporting is voluntary. Therefore, this database only represents the information we have received from airlines, airports, pilots, and other sources.”

We sorted the data to look for general information about wildlife strikes in the U.S. and specifically in Virginia. Using Microsoft Access, we grouped the data to obtain the frequency of strikes in a day, month and year. We also examined which airports had the most incidents of bird strikes and damage to aircrafts.

In addition, we extracted summary data from Microsoft Access and put it into Excel. These key tables help explain and illustrate trends discussed in our story.

Sidebar: Wildlife Strikes by the Numbers