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How Birds Pose a Serious Risk to Airplane

... Smita Bharati/Unbound:

We all have heard about bird strikes at some point or the other. Birds, in fact, represent a serious, threat to aircraft. However, the fact is that not all bird strikes are serious and most actually do not result in any aircraft damage. But at the same time it’s also true that some bird strikes have led to serious accidents involving aircraft of every size. Although bird strikes pose a sizable threat to flight safety, the number of major accidents caused due to bird strikes is not very high.

How Birds Strike Plane?

Bird strikes or the collision of an aircraft with an airborne bird, tend to happen when aircraft are close to the ground, which means just before landing or after take-off, when jet engines are turning at top speeds. However, this doesn’t mean that there are no birds flying higher than “normal” altitudes; in fact, bird strikes have also been reported at higher altitudes of around 6000 meters (20,000 feet) to 9000 m (30,000 feet). The world record for a bird strike at the highest altitude ever is a staggering 11,300 meters (that’s 11.3 kilometers) above the ground!

When is Bird Strikes Serious?

Bird Strikes can be serious particularly when the birds, usually gulls, raptors and geese, are sucked into a jet engine and strike an engine fan blade. That impact displaces the blade such that it strikes another blade and a cascade can occur, resulting in engine failure. A 12-pound Canada goose striking an aircraft going 150 mph at lift-off generates the force of a 1,000-pound weight dropped from a height of 10 feet(Source: Bird Strike Committee USA).

Large aircraft are certified to be able to keep flying after impacting a 4-pound bird. Even smaller birds, such as starlings can cause engine failure. The greater the difference in the speed of the plane and the bird, the greater the force of the impact on the aircraft. The weight of the bird is also a factor, but the speed difference is a much bigger factor. Flocks of birds are even more dangerous as they can result in multiple strikes.

Airports, Oderman said, take several precautions to keep planes safe from birds. For instance, they often don't plant many trees nearby, as these are nesting areas for birds. Since La Guardia is right on the water, he noted, there are a lot of water birds around.

How Frequent Are the Bird Strikes

Bird strikes are on the rise. Five jet airliners have had major accidents involving bird strikes since 1975. In one case, about three dozen people died. Since 1988, over 200 people have been killed worldwide as a result of encounters with birds and other wildlife. The one that got a lot of attention was the case of US Airways Flight 1549. Back on January 15, 2009, an airplane (Airbus 320) made a miraculous unpowered landing in the Hudson River after being hit by a flock of birds shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

So, bird strikes are real and are here to stay. In the long aviation history, the real loss of life due to bird strike does not constitute a very high number. It’s a risk, nevertheless!