When birds and planes collide

Thousands of birds collide with aircraft every year but in most cases there is little or no damage to the plane. However in a small proportion of cases aircraft have been destroyed as result of bird strike. In 1988, 35 people died when an Ethiopian Airlines 737 crash landed and caught fire after flying into a flock of speckled pigeons (pdf). The aircraft lost power after birds were sucked into the engines. Authorities believe that bird strike was also the reason US Airways Flight 1549 lost power and ditched in the Hudson River.

Between 1990 and 2007, 79,972 bird strikes were reported to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (pdf). According to biologist and bird strike expert Richard Dolbeer only around 12 to 15 percent of these strikes result in damage to the aircraft. But in a small proportion of cases, bird strike leads to serious damage and in some cases disaster.

According to Dolbeer and the FAA’s Sandra E Wright (pdf), the most serious bird strike to a civil aircraft occurred in 1960 when a Lockheed Electra taking off from Boston’s Logan Airport flew through a flock of European starlings. One engine shut down and two other engines lost power. Sixty two people died when the aircraft plunged into Boston harbour. Ten people survived.

Researchers say that bird strikes are becoming more common as air traffic increases, bird populations rise and aircraft become quieter. A risk assessment carried out in the late 1990s reported that "in the next 10 years there is about a 25% probability that a large jet transport will be involved in a fatal bird strike related accident in the U.S. or Canada."

Dolbeer argues that it’s important for researchers to be able to identify which species of birds are colliding with aircraft as this data can help biologists create more effective wildlife risk management programs at airports. In a paper for the FAA (pdf) he urged airline staff to send bird feathers, talons, beaks and bones to researchers at the Smithsonian Institution for identification. However he cautioned: "Do not send entire bird carcasses through the mail."

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Tony Harris
15 years ago

Thanks Don, a nice backgrounder!
Bird strikes are going to be a growing problem with wind turbines as well, this will bring different groups of environmentalists into conflict, as reported someplace where the bird lovers are standing in the way of a proposed windfarm.

Tony Harris
15 years ago

PS Thanks for the warning on sending carcasses through the mail! Not even Express Post?

15 years ago

Don, What about the welfare of the birds?

Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

One of my colleagues used to work in the aircraft industry as an engineer. He reckons that the standard method of testing the resistance of an engine to birds was to toss in a (dead) turkey. Rumour had it that, on one occasion, an engine was near wrecked when somebody forgot to thaw the turkey first!


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