Making Airspace for Birds and Planes

Artwork by Aaron Koblin

Making Airspace for Birds and Planes

When birds and aircraft collide, it can be disastrous. Fortunately, a combination of common sense, cutting-edge technology, and a bit of bird knowledge is making the skies safer for all.  

By Bruce Barcott/Artwork by Aaron Koblin
Published: May-June 2009

Those who work in the specialized field of birdstrike avoidance have spoken out for years about the rising hazard of airplanes hitting birds. "The numbers keep going up, and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is just clueless," Paul Eschenfelder, a veteran pilot for a major international airline, told me late last year. "The airline industry doesn't want to get involved because they're afraid they might have to spend money. Nobody will get involved until we have a big catastrophe."

The big catastrophe nearly came on January 15, 2009.

About 90 seconds after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport, US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese, disabling both engines. "It was the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I've ever felt in my life," Captain Chesley Sullenberger would later tell CBS's 60 Minutes. The plane didn't have enough altitude to glide back to LaGuardia, so Sullenberger executed an emergency water landing on the Hudson River. He and the crew helped all 155 people on board get off safely.

While the accident brought the dangers of birdstrikes to the nation's attention, experts have long been investigating the most effective ways to curtail such collisions. They've discovered it requires an ornithologist's knowledge of bird behavior, high-tech radar equipment, labor-intensive ground observation, and some old-fashioned wildlife detective work.

 

On a morning last December in Tulsa, members of the 138th Fighter Wing of the Oklahoma Air National Guard filtered into a conference room for a 9 a.m. presentation. The fighter pilots wore green flight suits. Shoulder patches identified them as members of the Tulsa Vipers F-16 squadron recently returned from Iraq. They had the look of Top Guns expecting to endure a time waster taught by a civilian. A civilian bird guy.

The presenter that morning was Russ DeFusco, a leading authority on birdstrikes. His job is to keep gulls, starlings, and turkey vultures from getting sucked into the Vipers' engines. To a fighter pilot just back from combat, though, Canada geese may be low on the list of concerns. "These guys are worried about dodging bullets, not birds," DeFusco told me, "so I've got to get their attention in a hurry."

To do that, he told this story.

In July 1995 DeFusco gave a similar briefing to officials at Elmendorf Air Force Base outside Anchorage, Alaska. Elmendorf had a notorious Canada geese problem. Migrating flocks liked to rest and feed on the grass surrounding the base's runways.  "You've got to watch the runway grass carefully, and do everything in your power to harass that first migrating bird away from here," DeFusco told Elmendorf officials. "If he lands and feeds, that sends a signal to the rest of the flock. One bird will draw dozens and then hundreds of others."

When DeFusco delivered a plan for an aggressive bird management program, the officials put a few suggestions into action but ignored most of the recommendations. Two months later, on September 22, an Air Force AWACS communication plane struck 25 Canada geese during takeoff. The birds knocked out the two left engines, sending the plane out of control. It crashed in heavy woods outside of Anchorage, destroying the plane and killing all 24 crew members aboard.

If the pilots in Tulsa thought their nimble fighter jets made them less vulnerable, DeFusco told them, they should think again. "The Air Force has lost more F-16s to birdstrikes than any other aircraft," he said. Twenty-two years ago DeFusco was hired to investigate an F-4 fighter destroyed by a griffon vulture in Spain. "It turned out the bird crashed straight through the canopy and decapitated the pilot. The bird goo blinded the co-pilot, who went down with the ship. When they found the co-pilot's body his hand was still gripping the stick."

 

Birds collide with airplanes, on average, about 20 times a day around the United States. The results of these midair meetings are fairly predictable. The birds end up as "snarge," the industry term for the gooey remains. Commercial jets usually escape with little damage. But not always. A bird can crumple an airplane's nose cone, punch a hole in a wing, disable the ground steering, or destroy an engine. "Most times they just bounce off, and you don't even know you've hit a bird," says Eschenfelder, a member of Bird Strike Committee USA, a group of aviation industry officials who track the issue. "But a jet engine can't just swallow those things and keep going. It's a real hazard, and it's happening every day."

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