It’s a bird; it’s a plane…it’s time to get serious about birdstrikes

 - June 30, 2009, 12:07 PM

I’m hoping that the next time Discovery Channel decides to do a special on Crashes that Changed Flying–and asks for my opinion–I’ll be able to point to Captain Sully’s landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the frigid waters of the Hudson River this past January as the accident that finally got something done about the dangers of birdstrikes.

I’ve sounded the alarm on birdstrikes for years. For me, the potential hazard was a highly personal one. As a teenager living under the flight path to Boston Logan International Airport, I witnessed the aftermath of an Eastern Airlines Electra that crashed on takeoff after hitting a flock of birds. Scores of people were killed. At the time, I was a young scuba diver learning from the instructor who happened to be training the Massachusetts State Police diving unit; I was pressed into the recovery effort. Needless to say, the grim recovery of the victims’ bodies is indelibly etched in my mind, as is the cause of the accident.  

Once I got on the NTSB as a board member, I made raising awareness of the dangers of birdstrikes a personal crusade. Unfortunately, that Eastern Airlines accident was not the last. As many may be aware, bird and other wildlife strikes are costly. While relatively few accidents have resulted in loss of life, damage to aircraft has been expensive–to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Damage when just one engine eats one bird can cost upwards of a million dollars, even if no accident results. Working with Bird Strike USA (a non-profit group dealing with the issues of birds and other wildlife around airports), numerous airport authorities with  responsibility for wildlife management around their airports, the FAA and engine manufacturers, the board tried to galvanize government regulators and the aviation industry as a whole to tackle the bird problem on the ground and in the air.

On the ground, significant progress was made. Multi-pronged attacks on their habitats by removing sources of food and standing water along with the introduction of natural (dogs and falcons) and not-so-natural (guns) enemies have been fairly successful. In the air, however, limited progress was made. Engine and radar technology was not sufficiently improved. While the standards were made more stringent (large engines had to handle eight-pound birds without shutting down), the technology was not there to handle the birds of 12 to 14 pounds that we know are flying out there. The technology was also not there to handle the flocks of birds that we also know are flying out there. (In the last decade, the Canada goose population has reportedly increased four-fold.) Radar technology is there to depict flocks of birds, but it has not been widely deployed.

Despite the best intentions of some capable and knowledgeable people, we were never able to get the dedicated resources to mount a sustained effort to solve the bird problem. One of our stumbling blocks was the assumption in some quarters–including the FAA–that it was extremely unlikely birds would take out
two aircraft engines at one time. And as long as an airplane has one engine, the theory was that it could get to a safe landing area. Not a great compromise, but not a disaster in the making either.  Once the FAA gets set on its assumptions–such as the unlikely possibility of birds taking out two aircraft engines–it’s tough to get it to focus on a solution to a problem it doesn’t perceive. Though manufacturers met the FAA’s requirements, they did not exceed them, even though the standards were clearly not adequate to handle the largest birds flying the not-so-friendly skies.

But the dramatic ditching of the A320 on January 15 might have finally provided the impetus for change. The spectacular water landing captured the attention of the world and focused unprecedented attention on the dangers of birdstrikes. Under intense public pressure, the FAA was forced to reveal its closely guarded data on birdstrikes–data that revealed the prevalence of the problem and the importance of solving it. The NTSB held three days of hearings (see page 20) on the accident–which is a first, to my knowledge, for an accident with no fatalities.

Now we need a sustained effort to achieve two goals: the technological breakthroughs in design and manufacture to make engines withstand ingestion of the largest birds; and deployment of the radar technology to spot flocks of birds with enough time to warn cockpit crews. Both have been elusive thus far. As the government regulator with control over engine, airport and airspace standards, the FAA is in the best position to shepherd the sustained effort necessary, in cooperation with industry and wildlife experts. However, since these areas cross organizational lines within the FAA, I believe that a high-level position reporting directly to the Office of the Administrator should be established to ensure that the momentum behind resolving birdstrikes remains until the danger is eliminated.