Bird Strikes

This video was taken at the Red Bull Air Races and features Hannes Arch, the pilot who was on his way to a win when a pelican glanced off his right side fuselage striking the horizontal stab.

To average bystander this video makes bird-strikes appear benign, and some certainly are.  I’ve taken down a few birds in my career with only minor damage to the aircraft.  But many times a small bird-strike in the right place can mean loss of the aircraft (such as the U.S. Airways flight that was forced to ditch in the Hudson River in January 2009) and in the worst cases loss of life.

The Wright Brothers had their first bird-strike in 1905 and we’ve been competing with the birds for airspace ever since.  So how do we avoid our avian friends while airborne?  Proper planning and preparation for handling the aircraft once a bird has been hit can make all the difference.

In the planning phase, check the U.S. Avian Hazard Advisory System (USAHAS).  This will give you an idea of how severe the bird situation will be at your airfield or in the airspace in which you will be operating.  During times of heavy/severe bird presence limit your time in the pattern to takeoffs (only if you absolutely cannot wait for the bird status to change) and landings – consider an alternate airfield if the bird situation is bad enough.  It’s probably not a good idea to be doing touch and go’s during times when hundreds of birds are flocking around the airfield.  Common sense tells us the airfields near water and along migratory routes will certainly have birds present.  Mornings and evenings are especially high threat times of the day for bird activity.

Once airborne and low to the ground, be cautious of making extreme flight control inputs to avoid birds.  Sure, you missed the bird, but the fact that you entered an unrecoverable stall at low altitude isn’t going to make you a hero.

Don’t fall prey to some of the myths regarding bird avoidance that are running rampant in the flying community.  Here are some misconceptions regarding bird avoidance that were presented by Roger Nicholson, Ph.D. and William S. Reed, both of Boeing Corp:

  • Birds don’t fly at night.
  • Birds don’t fly in poor visibility, such as in clouds, fog, rain, or snow.
  • Birds can detect airplane landing lights and weather radar and avoid the airplane.
  • Airplane colors and jet engine spinner markings help to repel birds.
  • Birds seek to avoid airplanes because of aerodynamic and engine noise.
  • Birds dive to avoid an approaching airplane.

I’ll leave you with a couple more bird strike videos I found to be interesting.  The first video shows a bird-strike that resulted in the loss of a U.S. F-16 (both pilots safely ejected).  The second shows how GE tests their engines to ensure the engines on commercial aircraft can chew them up and spit them out.