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.