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Update on Rising Reports of Bird Strikes

The bird population is increasing in North America, and not surprisingly, the number of reported bird strikes. According to a recent WCBS 880 report, there were 175 bird strikes last year at LaGuardia Airport — the most since the FAA started tracking the incidents in 1990. Another record was set at Newark Airport with 177 strikes, and at JFK there were 210 incidents last year. Thankfully, of those, only 11 of the bird strikes at all three airports resulted in damaged planes.

Here’s a review of bird strikes, how to avoid them, and what to do should it happen to you from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) “Bird and Wildlife Strikes.”

Some background on bird strikes

It is believed that the first pilot to be involved in a bird strike was Orville Wright in 1908, and the first recorded fatality from a bird strike occurred in 1912 when Cal Rogers, who made history flying across the country, was performing a demonstration flight in California when his Wright Flyer collided with a seagull.

The threat of bird strikes became more serious in the 1950s with the advent and use of gas turbine engines in planes — the FAA began testing these engines for bird ingestion capabilities.

Gas turbine engines are able to ingest about three small birds weighing one and one-half pounds each, or one medium bird weighing two and one-half pounds, without failing. The FAA considers a large bird to weigh more than four pounds, and there is no current aircraft engine certified to ingest a large bird without shutting down. Keep in mind that the average Canadian goose weighs about 12 pounds.

According to the AOPA, the Canada goose population has tripled in the last decade, and there are now more than 5 million in the United States. There are also between 500 million and 1 billion birds that migrate over the U.S. each year.

Most bird strikes occur during the migratory season, between July and November. Most happen during the day, but about 25 percent occur at night. Birds usually fly around 7,000 feet above ground level, but they have been spotted at altitudes above 20,000 feet, and even as high as 54,000 feet.

More stats on strikes

In the last 20 years, there have been approximately 112,815 reported bird and wildlife strikes in the U.S. These reported strikes have resulted in more than 350 fatalities, and the aviation industry spends nearly $330 million and suffers 500,000 hours of down time annually from strikes.

The number of strikes is probably much larger because experts estimate that about 80 percent of them go unreported! If this high percentage is true, it’s feasible that the number of strikes has been closer to 500,000 over the last two decades.

Keep an eye on deer

In addition to bird strikes, pilots must also be cautious about potential wildlife strikes, especially in rural areas as it is not uncommon for deer or other animals to wander onto the runway.

According to the FAA’s National Wildlife Strike Database, there have been 898 white-tailed deer strikes in the U.S. between 1990 and 2010.

Keep an eye out for deer, which are naturally camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings. A startled deer hidden in trees near the airport can run at speeds of 20 to 30 mph and could be on the runway before you’ve had time to lift off. Also, their fixation with lights may cause them to “freeze” so be prepared to abort a take-off at night, with little notice.

Also keep in mind deer are more active at night, when most deer strikes happen. Deer are also more active in the fall — more than half of the total annual strikes occur from September to December.

Avoiding bird strikes

There’s no way to completely avoid the possibility of a bird or wildlife strike, but there are things you can do to mitigate the risk.

Keep in mind:

  • About 90 percent of bird strikes take place at or near airports, usually during taking off or landing.
  • Remember most bird strikes occur during the migratory season, between July and November and most happen during the day.
  • The four major migration routes across the U.S. are The Atlantic Flyway, which follows the Atlantic Coast; The Mississippi Flyway in and around the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River; The Central Flyway, east of the Rocky Mountains; and The Pacific Flyway, which follows the West Coast.
  • Before flying into an airport, check The FAA Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) for any warnings regarding bird strikes and hazards.
  • Avoid flying in and out of airports located near marshlands and landfills if possible, as birds tend to congregate in low-lying areas where there is more food.
  • If you notice significant bird activity on the field as you are taxiing, turn your lights on, as birds may see you in time to move and then fly as high as practical.
  • Also ask airport personnel to disperse them — some airports have remotely triggered cannons used specifically to scare off birds.
  • When in doubt, wait. The cost of the extra fuel burned may be minimal compared to the cost of damage due to a bird or wildlife strike.
  • Once airborne, limit flights over designated bird sanctuaries, and passing over beaches, where seagulls, pelicans and other waterfowl congregate and fly.
  • Also avoid flying beneath flocks of birds. Keep in mind that when birds get spooked, they usually dive, so if you approach birds, pitch up — but not so aggressively that you risk stalling.
  • Don’t fly the approach any faster than necessary — speed plays a larger role in the amount of damage from a bird strike than the mass of the bird does.
  • If the landing zone is unsafe, a go-around is worth the extra time and fuel — don’t assume that birds will get out of your way as you approach them.
  • Check out the AOPA online forums where members chat with pilots from all over the country and exchange information.

Do report bird strikes

While the FAA does not require pilots to report bird strike reports, it’s good practice for the safety of others.

Also, some bird strikes may require a report to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). 49 CFR Part 830, also known as “NTSB 830,” states that an “immediate report should be filed if a required crewmember is unable to perform their duties due to injury, or a flight control system fails or malfunctions, among other reasons.”

If the strike happened near an airport, also notify the airport authority as they need to know this information to alert other pilots. Reporting a bird strike can be done online at the FAA Wildlife Strike Database.

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