There are more planes and more large birds flying around, and collisions between them are happening five times more often than they did in 1990, a new federal report says, sometimes with deadly results.
The victims could fill a novice bird-watcher’s bucket list: blackpoll warbler, double-crested cormorant, American black duck, short-billed dowitcher, black-crowned night heron, magnolia warbler, budgerigar and green-winged teal.
The other victims could fill an airplane repair shop: several Boeing 737s, a Boeing 717, a Beechjet 400, a Boeing 747, a Boeing 757 and a Boeing 767.
Birds and jet airplanes don’t play well together.
This fact made news in 2009 when Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III landed a US Airways flight in the Hudson River after a flock of geese stalled both of its engines.
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Such encounters don’t all turn out that well. In 1960, a flock of European starlings was blamed for an Eastern Airlines crash into Boston Harbor that killed 62 people.
Now there are more planes and more large birds flying around, and collisions between them are happening five times more often than they did in 1990, a new federal report says, sometimes with deadly results.
Vice President Joe Biden’s plane was grounded in April after colliding with birds while approaching the Santa Barbara, Calif., airport, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Air Force jet was damaged the same month while bound from Brussels to Paris.
The Federal Aviation Administration has spent $458 million in the past five years to control birds and other wildlife around airports, but an inspector general’s report says it should do a better job of dealing with the risk animals pose to passengers.
The FAA says it plans to tighten its oversight.
“After the miracle on the Hudson and bird strikes on both the vice president and secretary of state’s aircraft, I’m at a loss to know what’s required to get the FAA to do its job,” said James Hall, former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. “I certainly hope it will be this report, and not a fatal accident in the future.”
Hall, who is involved with a group opposed to a new landfill near New York’s LaGuardia Airport, said the report showed “a failure of leadership at the top of the FAA.”
The FAA says that the worst strikes are decreasing.
“It is important to note that reported damaging strikes are down despite the fact that total reported strikes are increasing,” the agency said in a statement. “This is attributed to the many professionally managed wildlife hazard mitigation programs in place at airports. The FAA has already adopted and completed a majority of the IG’s recommendations, and will continue to make improvements to the wildlife hazard-mitigation program.”
Keeping the critters at bay is no easy task. Failure to do so carries a cost: an estimated $625 million a year and at least 25 deaths and 235 injuries since 1988. Had not Sullenberger pulled off what came to be known as “the miracle on the Hudson,” the number of deaths might have grown sixfold in an instant.
It is a problem that exemplifies the law of unintended consequences.
“Most of the large birds that represent strike threats have been increasing in number,” said Carol Bannerman of the wildlife service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s a conservation success story.”
Many of the birds that were endangered 50 years ago by the pesticide DDT have rebounded beautifully. They include Canada geese, pelicans, sandhill cranes, wild turkeys, eagles and other raptors.
“All of which could cause catastrophic failure if ingested into an aircraft engine,” said the report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDA) inspector general, which made 10 recommendations to the FAA. “Increases in the populations of hazardous wildlife species continue to challenge the airports’ ability to provide a safe operating environment.”
A federal aviation expert, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, said aircraft from the era when hitting big birds was a rarity were not built to sustain those impacts.
“The threat to big airplanes is jet-engine outages,” he said. “The threat to smaller planes and helicopters is even greater.”
Five people died in 2008 when the wing of a small passenger jet struck a pelican near Oklahoma City. Eight people died in 2009 when a red-tailed hawk crashed through the windshield of a helicopter carrying passengers to an offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. A red-tailed hawk also was blamed for the crash last year in California of a Marine AH-1 attack helicopter that killed two Marines.
The USDA, working on behalf of the FAA, has done a variety of creative things to reduce airport wildlife.
At Dulles International Airport, for example, fences extend two feet underground to foil small animals. At Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, the wildlife service traps and relocates American kestrels, which are a type of falcon.
Signs and trees where birds like to perch have been reduced in number, and a sticky coating that birds find unpleasant has been applied in some places. Standing water has been reduced or eliminated. Netting covers light posts and hangar corners to discourage nesting.
Dumpsters that draw rats and the raptors that feed on them have been minimized.
“Not providing the food, water and shelter that the animals want chases more than 90 percent of them away,” Bannerman said.
When that fails, airports use the noise of cannons to frighten them. And sometimes, Bannerman said, they are “lethally removed.”
She said most bird strikes occur between July and October; they peak in late summer “because you have all of the fledgling new birds.”
The first known bird strike by an airplane occurred in 1905 above an Ohio cornfield. It was dutifully recorded in a diary by the pilot, Orville Wright.