Captain Alan W. Price reveals some fascinating facts about aircraft bird strikes and re-creates the terrifying moments leading up to Air Flight 1549’s miraculous landing in the Hudson River.
4 little-known facts about aircraft bird strikes
1. Since 1998, only 219 deaths have occurred worldwide as a result of bird strikes, from a total of close to one billion flights!*
2. Damage from bird strikes is estimated at 550,000 hours of aircraft down time/year which equates to an annual cost of $625 million.*
3. Aircraft engines and windshields are tested through simulated bird strikes whereby dead chickens are fired from a cannon at varying weights and speeds.
4. Despite these precautions, large birds such as geese can still cause catastrophic damage, as experienced by US Air Flight 1549.
* Source “Aviation Week and Space Technology”
5 techniques for averting a bird strike disaster
1. Distinctive swirl patterns are sometimes painted on engine compressor hub spinners, mimicking a giant rotating barber shop pole.
2. Aircraft windshield glass is built several inches thick to prevent penetration. Electrical heat systems are used to warm the glass, making it more malleable and resistant to damage.
3. Airports are often built near areas that attract birds – garbage dumps, marshy wetlands etc.. Noise cannons, scarecrows and bird activity reports all are part of the defensive systems aimed at combating bird hazards.
4. The majority of bird strikes occur below 3,000’AGL. Efficient departure/arrival handling by air traffic control can lead to less time spent at these lower altitudes.
5. Pilots avoid flocks of birds the same way they avoid other aircraft – through a “see and avoid” method, with “eyes out of the cockpit” at lower altitudes.
Picture this. It’s just after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia airport, gear up, climb speed established. Initial departure path will take you to the north, then up the Jersey side of the Hudson. Climbing through 1,000’AGL (Above Ground Level), you accelerate toward best climb speed and finish the after takeoff checklist. Life is good. Suddenly, whilst climbing through 3,000’AGL, you notice grey streaks flashing past the windscreen. “Birds!” You hear, feel, and smell the impact.
Your goose is cooked
“Your goose is cooked” is a bad thing when dealing with jet engines. Birds, lots of large birds picked today to use your A320 for target practice. Both engines are fatally damaged. You feel the loss of thrust, and look for a place to put this puppy down. Ninety seconds later, you are in the ice-cold waters of the Hudson River.
Train the way you want to fly
What I’ve just described is the first few minutes of US Air Flight 1549. Let me say this plainly – in circumstances like these, when an unexpected emergency occurs, pilots do not think like normal people imagine they think. When pilots have a problem, they’ve got to solve it. There’s no time to worry about what might have been. Years of experience and thousands of hours of training kick in.
There is an old adage in military circles – “train the way you want to fight.” In aviation parlance it’s – “train the way you want to fly.” Endless hours of simulated emergencies spent in full-motion simulators allow modern pilots to be “there” before we are actually “there.” Capt Sullenberger and his crew leveraged this advantage – training – coupled with a huge amount of aviation creativity to perform an incredible ditching in the Hudson River. “Sully” would be the first to tell you it wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good.
Keeping cool in a crisis
In the event of a bird strike, the pilot’s first order of business is damage assessment. Damage to the windshield is immediately obvious, engine damage can usually be diagnosed by scanning engine instruments. If damage does occur, we are faced with a “go/no go” choice – landing short of destination or continuing. US Air Flight 1549 faced a wonderfully simple choice since they became an unpowered glider. The decision was not if they should land, but where!
I once ingested several birds from a flock of sea gulls into both engines. The abiding memory that stays with me is the smell of cooked birds. There was no obvious damage, and the question foremost in my mind was “could it be unseen”? That’s where professional judgment comes in. In my case, we continued to destination since we were nearby. Inspection on the ground produced numerous feathers, but no engine damage.
If you are unlucky enough to experience an aircraft bird strike, you want your pilot to have a healthy sense of skepticism. This serves well when things go wrong. Bird strikes are always unexpected, so your pilot’s response is crucial. Advance planning also becomes a huge factor for averting potential disaster.
In the final analysis, you should find comfort in the fact that the chances of being hit by a bird strike are miniscule. Should one occur, the chance of major damage is small. If your aircraft does suffer major damage, the probability of physical harm is still remote. US Air Flight 1549 defied all these odds – it was an exceptional event in more ways than one. So my final words on bird strikes? Relax. The Force is with you!