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  Home > Newsletter > Summer Safety Review: Bird Strikes, June 2015

Summer Safety Review: Bird Strikes

With the summer flying season kicking into high gear — and ducks, geese and other fowl filling the air — it’s a good time for pilots and FBOs to review the danger of bird strikes, and how to help prevent them.

It seems that bird strikes have become a more common problem for airports, pilots and passengers over the past decades. A bird or a flock of birds that suddenly rises from a runway or surrounding area may collide with incoming or departing aircraft and cause the aircraft to crash, possibly resulting in the loss of human life.

Since the beginning of flight, birds have been a threat to aircraft, but are more so today because of the speed at which jets takeoff and land. A greater number of birds due to successful conservation efforts may also be a factor contributing to more strikes.

Damage caused to aircraft usually results from collision of one or more birds with the engines and/or fuselage. Although most bird strikes do not result in crashes, they can involve expensive structural and mechanical damage to aircraft. The incidence of this problem worldwide makes bird strikes a serious economic and safety problem.

First flights, first strikes

Birds have been a hazard to aircraft from the first powered flight. During the early days of aviation, when aircraft flew at slow speeds, birds had more time to see a plane and get out of the way. As a result, bird strikes were infrequent and damage mainly consisted of cracked windshields or a few dents — the likelihood of the loss of aircraft and/or human lives was remote.

Today, with the development and introduction of jet aircraft, bird strikes have become a serious hazard and costly problem. Faster speeds mean birds have less time to react to approaching aircraft. The force generated by bird impact with a fast-moving aircraft is tremendous. The newer turbine engines use lightweight, high-speed mechanical parts which are vulnerable to bird strike damage.

What we can learn from Sully

One of the most famous bird strikes involved a flock of Canadian geese crashing into a US Airways jet piloted by Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger. Known as the "Miracle on the Hudson,” Capt. Sullenberger safely landed the plane in the Hudson River, saving the lives of 155 passengers and crew.

What can pilots and aviation professionals learn from Sullenberger and the crew of US Airways Flight 1549?

Deliberate calm. Contrary to popular belief, people like Sullenberger do not just stay calm, while other weaker individuals give in to panic. Fear and panic are automatic brain responses under frightful and dangerous circumstances.

What made Sullenberger truly heroic was his ability to push through his fear, to override it with rational thought. To be able to think, "Stay calm, keep it together, you have a plane to land," and then actually do it. Neuroscientists call this metacognition. Pilots call it "deliberate calm," the ability to give oneself an automatic correction under stressful circumstances.

Embrace the flight simulator. Flight simulators are an incredible tool for teaching pilots and aircraft personnel how to stay calm and focused under duress. First, simulators can teach technical skills, such as how to land a plane that has lost power in the water. But just as important, a simulator can train individuals how to override their fear so they can think clearly amid the chaos.

Preparation and more preparation. Sullenberger has said that he "had done a pretty good job of preparing himself for whatever might come." That’s an understatement, considering that he has logged more than 20,000 flight hours over the course of his career, from Air Force jet fighter pilot to commercial airline pilot. It takes years of training and discipline to be as prepared as he was that day the engines went out on Flight 1549. The lesson for all pilots and aircraft professionals is to — as the Boy Scouts mantra says — be prepared. Train, learn, log hours, and stay sharp in order to be prepared for whatever may come.

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