On Bird Strikes

Not nearly as rare — or as dangerous — as you think.

Yesterday’s dramatic landing of an Airbus plane in the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey has put the topic of bird strikes on everyone’s mind. As usual, the media is spinning stories about it, apparently to generate the fear that sells newspapers, gets listeners, and keeps viewers glued to the television set.

Pilots — the people who know aviation a lot better than the average news reporter — also know a bit about bird strikes.

Bird Strikes are Not That Rare

The truth of the matter is that bird strikes aren’t nearly as rare as many people think. I can think of five bird strike incidents that touched my life:

  • Years ago, on a Southwest Airlines flight taking off from Burbank, our plane flew through a flock of white birds. It was nighttime and I don’t know what the birds were — seagulls? — but I clearly saw them in the glow of the plane’s lights, flying past the wings as we climbed out. When we landed in Phoenix and I left the plane, I glanced through the open cockpit door and saw the blood on the outside of the windscreen. Bird strike.
  • On my first day of work as a pilot at the Grand Canyon, one of the other pilots had a bird strike during a tour. The bird had passed through the lower cockpit bubble and landed in a bloody heap on the pilot’s lap. He flew back with the bird there and a very distraught front seat passenger beside him. The cockpit bubble needed replacement, of course.
  • While waiting at the Grand Canyon for my charter passengers to complete an air tour with one of the helicopter operators there, the helicopter my passengers was on suffered a bird strike. The pilot calmly reported it as she flew in. When she landed, there was bird guts and blood at the top center of the helicopter’s bubble. She’d been lucky. The helicopter, an EC130, has a central intake for the turbine engine and the bird hadn’t been sucked in.
  • On my very first rides gig with my R44 helicopter, I was taking a group of three passengers for an 8-minute tour around a mountain near Aguila, AZ when I heard a loud clang. Instruments okay, controls felt fine, passengers weren’t reacting. I didn’t know what it was until I landed. That’s when one of my ground crew pointed out the dent in my landing gear’s fairing. My first (and hopefully, only) bird strike had been a non-event for me, but likely a lot more serious for the bird. (Of course, I wasn’t very happy to get a dent on an aircraft only 11 hours old.
  • When a friend of mine took me up in her Decathalon airplane for a little aerobatic demonstration, we hit a bird on takeoff. It went right into the engine at the base of the prop and we instantly smelled cooking bird. My friend climbed enough to circle back and land safefly at the airport. She shut down the engine and climbed out. I watched from the passenger seat as she pulled the remains of a relatively small bird out of the cooling fin area of the engine. After discarding the bird bits, she climbed back in, started up, and we took off again.

That’s five examples of bird strikes I had firsthand knowledge of. In three of those instances, I was on board an aircraft that struck one or more birds. So when people seem amazed that an airliner hit a bird or two, I’m not amazed at all.

According to Wikipedia’s Bird Strike entry:

The first reported bird strike was by Orville Wright in 1905, and according to their diaries Orville “…flew 4,751 meters in 4 minutes 45 seconds, four complete circles. Twice passed over fence into Beard’s cornfield. Chased flock of birds for two rounds and killed one which fell on top of the upper surface and after a time fell off when swinging a sharp curve.”

I’d venture to guess that it happens to at least one airliner every single day.

Bird Strikes Rarely Cause Crashes

The media would like you to think that bird strikes cause crashes. They can, of course — yesterday’s Airbus ditching proved that. They can even cause fiery crashes with deaths. The media wants you to be afraid — very afraid.

But as my above-listed examples also prove, bird strikes can be non-events, often without causing any damage at all to the aircraft.

So what’s an air traveler to do? Worry that his next flight might end with a swim in an icy river or a fireball death? Or stop worrying about it?

What do you think?

On a more personal note: I’m glad the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 didn’t attempt a landing at Teterboro. My sister lives in an apartment building on the approach end of one of the runways there. A crash there wouldn’t have had a happy ending.

5 thoughts on “On Bird Strikes

  1. I’ve had 3 bird strikes in my career so far, 2 in the Smoky Mountains National Park when I did tours there. Both in the Jetranger, one was a small sparrow hit dead center of the main intake fairing, so not debris went into the intake area. The second was a pigeon, and I tried at the last second to miss the bird and dove down hard right. I ended up with a perfect imprint of a wing on the left passenger door, almost as if it were painted on. Bird dander I would guess. The detail was amazing, I wish I would have taken a pic of that imprint. The last one was when I was flying out of E25, one of those little blackbirds hit the main rotormast and little remains were found on the T/R as well.

  2. I’ve only had one known strike so far, and that one I was only 95% sure of – on takeoff at night in a Cirrus I’m fairly sure we hit a smallish bird with the left wing. The wings on that plane are fairly sharply shaped with a metal leading edge, and we were only doing about 70 kts, so there was no damage – thankfully. This happened just as we were starting to rotate for takeoff.

    Jason Miller´s last blog post: News of the day – Cirrus updates and the mysterious case of the missing pilot

  3. On a jet plane when a bird is sucked into an engine, it might be catastrophic, but mostly the engine holds. In most cirmumstances it isn’t serious, but the engine might get clogged and lose power. In case of a propeller or turboprob engine the propeller usually holds. Anyway, most turboprop planes have two engines atleast, and are designed to be able to fly with one engine feathering, and big jets with four engines can fly with three engines.

    When flying fast like passenger liners you can’t dodge them. The collisions occur when climbing to cruise altitude, or diving for landing, not in cruise flight, so to fear bird strikes is when climbing or diving. In level flight all you have to fear about is the pressure hull at altitude. I’m not aware of a single passenger flight in recent history where a bird strike was a factor in an accident.

    • Mason: It depends on the size of the bird and where it hits. Also, you mention “dodging” birds. When you’re cruising in a small aircraft at 100 knots, a bird comes up pretty quick. Dodging is not usually an option, no matter what you’re flying. You have to hope that the bird hears/sees you coming and gets out of your way.

  4. I mean of course passenger flights, and accidents with fatalities. Bird strikes are a common occurence, but very, very rarely cause fatal accident. In small planes they are more dangerous if they hit the engine, but as here is proved, it doesn’t usually cause fatal accidents.

What do you think?