“It came out of nowhere.”
If you have every experienced a bird strike or know someone who has, these words might sound familiar. I admit that I uttered them myself recently when a crow-sized bird smacked against my windscreen shortly after I rotated on takeoff. Thankfully, the size of the bird resulted in my plane winning the smack-down, but left carnage along the fuselage and on the horizontal stab. The plane experienced no damage, but the strike resulted in a very messy cleanup job.
Several years ago, my husband was descending into the Kansas City area and a perfectly formed “V” of Canada geese appeared in the upper left quadrant of his windscreen. He quickly maneuvered away from the feathered missiles, hoping to miss them. Then he heard a “THWAP.” The last goose in formation met an untimely death against the outboard leading edge of the left wing. Although what was left of the goose departed, a large, flat indentation was left behind. The aircraft’s controls and flying characteristics were normal, so he proceeded on to our home airport a short 10 miles away.
Both of our encounters resulted in limited damage, but my husband’s experience could have been much worse, even tragic should the goose had impacted the windscreen. The repairs were thousands of dollars and the aircraft was down several weeks, which was an inconvenience and a somewhat time-consuming process of working through the insurance settlement.
Bird strikes have been a problem for aviation since the beginning of powered flight. The first known bird strike occurred on Sept. 7, 1908 with Orville Wright at the controls. Orville reportedly was flying circles near Dayton, Ohio when he struck and killed a bird that was part of a flock he was chasing. The first bird strike that resulted in a human fatality occurred April 3, 1912. Lt. Cal Rodgers was killed near Long Beach, California, when a gull became entangled in the controls of his aircraft, sending Rodgers plunging to the ground.
Many populations of birds have increased markedly in the last few decades. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, efforts to re-establish the Canada goose in its native habitat in the United States have been too successful. The birds, which are no longer federally protected, have expanded their natural range southward, and many populations of these geese have lost their migratory habit and have become permanent, year-round residents in areas where they previously had visited only during winter. The result is they’ve become a nuisance for many cities and have been cited as a problem in more than 100 urban areas in 37 states. There are about 5 million breeding Canada geese in North America and the number is growing.
The double engine flameout of US Airways Flight 1549 following an encounter of a Canada geese flock – which become known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” – is a prime example of a goose problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Likewise, the sandhill crane population in North America has increased fivefold since 1990, creating a threat to aviation. In April 2017, an Airbus 320 struck a migrating crane at 2,000 feet over the Potomac River in Virginia during departure from Reagan National Airport. The bird created a 12-inch dent in the right wing and the pilot made an emergency landing at Dulles International Airport.
According to the FAA, there have been approximately 194,000 wildlife strikes between 1990 and 2017, with about 14,400 of them happening at 700 U.S. airports in 2017 alone. Other facts about bird strikes in the FAA’s most recent wildlife strike report:
- Most bird strikes occurred between July and October;
- Most occurred during the day but nearly one-third occur at night;
- Most occurred during the landing phase, but 36 percent occur during takeoff and climb;
- 92 percent of bird strikes occurred under 3,500 AGL. However, there were 27 strikes with commercial aircraft at altitudes of FL200 to FL310 from 1990 to 2017;
- The most damaged aircraft component also happens to be the most expensive one: the engine;
- The economic loss from wildlife strikes totaled $765 million for the period between 1990 to 2017;
- The bird most commonly struck are mourning doves; waterfowl (ducks and geese) account for only 5 percent of strikes but are responsible for 28 percent of strikes that cause damage to the aircraft;
- Birds aren’t the only airport wildlife hazard. In 2018, the FAA received 40 reports of planes hitting coyotes and 24 involving deer;
- A 12-pound Canada goose struck by a 150-mph aircraft generates the force of a 1,000-pound weight dropped from a height of 10 feet.
According to the FAA, airport wildlife management that have been implemented since the 1990s has resulted in a general decline in reported strikes, but the agency said much work remains to be done to reduce strikes. Critically important is that the communities around airports must figure out how to minimize wildlife attractants within 5 miles of the runways. Also, the development of avian radar and bird migration forecasting needs to be integrated into airspace management.
Finally, the FAA wants to hear from pilots when they encounter a bird strike, regardless of whether it caused damage or not. A problem that is not well-defined cannot be properly managed. If you experience a bird strike, go to www.wildlife.faa.gov/strikenew.aspx and fill out strike report.
As you fly, keep an eye out for those feathery fiends, even at higher transitory altitudes. As a precaution, consider keeping your landing light on when transiting below 10,000 feet, especially during migratory seasons. It only takes a second for a pleasant flight to turn eventful and very expensive. At the least, you could end up AOG (that’s “aircraft-on-goose” in our case). At worse, a bird strike could cause extensive damage and injury – something no one hopes to encounter.