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Could Radar Keep Birds from Colliding with Aircraft?

US Airways Capt. Sullenberger testifies on Flight 1549's harrowing water landing as Congress mulls airline safety issues
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 The heroics of US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his Flight 1549 crew in ditching their bird-strike disabled Airbus A320 aircraft on in the Hudson River near New York Citybetween Manhattan and New Jersey are now legendary. But as the Federation Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulatory bodies examine the successful water landing and the role that a flock of Canadian geese played in shutting down both of the ill-fated jet's engines, a key question remains: Could the incident have been prevented?

"The windscreen was filled with birds," Sullenberger testified  today before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee during a hearing on air safety, including whether pilots and flight attendants are properly trained  to deal with such emergencies. (A summary of the  panel's  goals for the hearing can be read here.) "We saw them just a matter of seconds before impact."

On January 15,  a gaggle of Canadian geese flew into Flight 1549's engines about 2,700 feet (823 800 meters) in the air just 90 seconds after the plane took off from New York City's LaGuardia Airport (en route to North Carolina). After the impact, Sullenberger said that he "began to feel abnormally rough vibrations from both engines" and soon after noticed "a burnt bird smell."

"I knew immediately," he said, "the situation was dire."

Unfortunately, wildlife is attracted to the relatively undisturbed buffer zones-—often wetlands with good nesting areas-—cleared between airports and residential areas, making overpopulation a problem for airports. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, there were 82,057 reported bird strikes between 1999 and 2007 (with 7,439 in 2007 alone). But the agency said that only about 20 percent of bird strikes against with civilian aircraft are actually reported.

Bird strikes are potentially deadly. Though all 155 passengers and crew on Flight 1549 survived, those on board a helicopter that crashed near Morgan City, La., en route to an oil platform on January 4 were not as fortunate. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported  yesterday that investigators  had found evidence that birds were involved in that incident in which eight of nine people aboard were killed.

Airports have taken various steps in an attempt to limit the threat of growing bird populations, including modifying aircraft fight schedules and using pyrotechnics and chemical repellants to keep flocks out of flight paths, according to a 2005 safety manual prepared by federal transportation and agriculture officials. In some cases, the manual says, airports are limited in what they can do thanks to overlapping federal, state and local laws, regulations and ordinances—including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973—enacted to protect different animals.

To successfully manage bird populations, airports must first understand their flight patterns and behavior, Mark Reis, managing director of Seattle-–Tacoma International Airport (Sea–Tac), told the House panel. That's why Sea-–Tac (working with the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign) in August 2007 installed an avian radar system-—which costing around $250,000—that detects potentially hazardous bird activity on and near an airport. "The radar acts like a powerful pair of eyes," Reis said, "that can see more than a human (air traffic control) operator can." The FAA  is evaluating the success of this system as well as similar experimental bird radar systems at the Chicago's O'Hare and Dallas/Fort Worth International airports to determine whether it's worth the price tag to install them at all U.S. airports with that are high risk for bird  strikes risks.

The purpose of the radar is to give air controllers enough time to spot birds in flight and contact pilots to steer clear of them before the flocks fly, or are sucked, into the engines. "The system is working every day to provide data," Reis said. "But at this point we have too much [raw] data and need to filter it into useful information."

He cautioned that officials are  "in the early stages of research" and that it would be years before they can determine whether the system is effective.

Sullenberger told lawmakers that he was not aware of the avian radar technology being tested at Seattle-–Tacoma prior to today's hearing. Similarly, air traffic control specialist Patrick Harten, who worked with the Flight 1549 crew during the Hudson River landing, said he does not believe that LaGuardia has such radar.

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