Some recent examples?
Two months ago in Rome, a Boeing 737 operated by Ryanair, flew through a flock of starlings. These are small birds that weigh about 90 grams, or about…[three]…ounces. It hit a large flock of them and there was damage to both engines.The pilot just sort of flew the plane into the runway to control it, and it collapsed the landing gear and caused major damage. Everyone had to be evacuated just like today, and there were some injuries but no fatalities.
Anther recent incident occurred in Belgium last May 2008. A Boeing 747 cargo airplane, operated by Kalitta Air, was leaving the Brussels airport, and it ingested a bird into one of the engines. The pilot made a decision to abort the takeoff. He wasn't able to stop the aircraft before the end of the runway. The plane broke in two and was destroyed. Luckily, it was full of cargo and not passengers. [The entire crew survived.]
Are certain aircraft more likely to get hit than others?
Bird strikes are five times more likely to occur on planes with engines mounted under the wings, such as the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320, than on planes with engines mounted on the fuselage, like the Boeing MD-80 and some...[smaller]...jets.* It is probably because the airflow over the MD-80 causes the birds to get blown away from the engines.
Are bird strikes on the rise?
IIn 1990 there were only 1,750 strikes reported. Right now, for 2008, there will probably be 8,000 bird strikes reported. In 2007 there were 7,600.
One factor is there's probably better reporting today. I also think there has been an increase in populations of birds because of the various environmental programs put in place in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The resident Canada goose population in the United States, for instance, has increased from one million in 1990 to 3.9 million in 2008.
We're also seeing more and more birds adapt to urban environment, and they find airports very attractive because they provide a large grassy space they can come feed to and rest.
Finally, we've got air traffic increasing 2 percent a year, and the planes are quieter. Most of the noise comes out the back of the engine now, as opposed to propeller-driven aircraft and older jets where noise came out the front. Birds are less able to detect modern aircraft.
How can we cut down the risk of bird strikes?
There's no silver bullet. There's no magic chemical you can spray or sound you can project that is going to scare the birds away. What it takes, and what we advocate for airports worldwide is integrated management with three pillars:
The first pillar is habitat management. Manage habitat in the airport and surrounding area at least two miles from the airport. You don't want to have any bird attractants like landfills that attract gulls or other scavenging birds. On the airport, you want to eliminate standing water because water is a magnet. You want to have good drainage, and manage the grass and keep it mowed. You also want to keep [animal] populations under control so you don't attract birds of prey. You want to eliminate any perching structures on or around the airport and basically make the airport as sterile as possible.
The second pillar is having trained bird-control teams that patrol the airport and harass and disperse any birds that come onto the airport grounds. They use pyrotechnics and noisemakers that flash lights and that will scare—but not kill—the birds. Some airports use trained dogs. A few airports use trained falcons.
The last resort is lethal control or removal of birds from surrounding areas, which is only done under permit because all of these birds are federally protected under the Migratory Birds Treaty Act. Canada geese, for instance, are rounded up in early summer and euthanized.
That takes care of the airport environment. Once the plane gets away from the airport and the plane is gaining altitude there are a few things that hold promise but are not operational. How do we make aircraft more detectable or noticeable by birds? One concept is using pulsating landing lights instead of having steady lights in order to catch the birds' attention so they realize something fast is approaching. We also know birds see in the ultraviolet range beyond what humans see and one idea is to use UV-reflecting paint.
The final thing being worked on is bird-detecting radar. We have radar that detects weather and radar that detects wind shear around airports. You can program radar to filter out weather and show the birds. That would be available to pilots and air traffic control to help pilots steer around concentrations of birds in the air.
*Note (1/16/09): The original sentence identified the MD-80 as a McDonnell Douglas plane. It also was not clearly stated that the MD-80 is a long-range passenger airplane.