What Is A Bird Strike And What Damage Can It Cause?

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We have recently seen more incidents of birdstrikes, including one involving a LOT Polish Airlines Embraer E195 that suffered two separate strikes in a single day. With this in mind, we thought we would look into what defines a bird strike and how damaging it can be to an aircraft.

airport-birds
Airports are trying all kinds of ways to deter birds. Photo: USDA via Flickr

A bird strike is defined as being a collision between a bird and an aircraft and is often expanded to include bats and other animals. Bird strikes are much more common than you would think, with thousands of them happening every year.

Depending on the size of the bird, severe damage can be caused to the aircraft’s structure. Jet engines are particularly vulnerable to bird strikes, leading to a loss of thrust following the ingestion of the bird. Over the years, this has led to a small number of fatal accidents. While bird strikes are not rare, they are hardly ever deadly.

While a bird strike can occur anytime during a flight, they nearly always happen during takeoff and landing. Bird strikes are also more prevalent at an altitude of fewer than 3,000 feet (914m) and during the day time when birds are more active. The chances of fatal bird strikes increase during the spring and fall when ducks and geese are on their annual migrations.

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The habit has a role to play in bird strikes

The airport’s location can be a significant contributing factor to the number of bird strikes, with the following situations being more prone to incidents.

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canada geese
Migratory birds like Canada Geese pose a threat to planes. Photo: Publicdomainpictures

Coastal areas: 

If an airport is near the sea, gulls can be a problem for aircraft taking off and landing.

River estuaries:

River estuaries are popular nesting grounds for all types of wildfowl.

Marshland: 

As above, ducks and geese like to be near the water.

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Landfills: 

Rubbish (trash) dumps attract birds, including many seagulls who flock there in search of food. 

Farmland:

Geese, in particular, love pasture grass but also all kinds of vegetables like cabbage and carrots, and as a grazing animal are a significant pest for farmers.

Considerable areas of grass:

Airports that have large amounts of grassy areas or open spaces are more likely to attract birds.

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Migratory routes:

Any airports that are close to or on migratory bird routes are more prone to dangerous birdstrikes.

Airport bird management

Despite all kinds of bird deterrents that airports can use to stop birds being a problem, there is no single method that will work for all species. Wildlife management at airports can be labeled in two categories, lethal and non-lethal.

An Airbus A330 of China Eastern
Airbus A330 of China Eastern Airlines at London Heathrow Airport. Photo: M. Zhu via Wikimedia

While lethal control, which involves hunting wildlife at airports using birds of prey, traps, or men with shotguns, can be the most effective, it is also the least humane. These days airports prefer to deter birds with airhorns, fireworks, and visual repellants.

Methods to keep birds from airports

Rather than trying to solve a bird problem once you realize you have one, why not tackle the issue before it happens? Below is a list of things airports can do to minimize the risk of birdstrikes:

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  • The number one thing an airport can do is remove trees, shrubs, and other plants that provide food and a nesting place.
  • Get rid of standing water while placing nets over ponds and streams it they cannot be drained. 
  • Areas that are susceptible to standing water after rainfall need to have proper drainage. 
  • Liaise with the local authorities regarding landfills and their hazard to aircraft. 
  • Talk with local farmers regarding fields and crops that are planted near to the airport.

Grass management 

Studies done on the subject suggest keeping airfield grass height between six and eight inches (15 and 20 cm) as this is the optimum height for controlling birds.

airport grass
Proper grass management at airports is vital to deter birds. Photo: Pexels

Airport perimeter grass at this height prevents birds from easily finding insects or seeds. It also prevents them from seeing approaching predators and is something that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Animal management

Keeping rabbit and rodent populations under control is also essential in helping to prevent bird strikes. Using London Stansted Airport (STN) as an example, they had a large population of rabbits continually getting run over by airport vehicles. The rabbits also left large amounts of dropping, which then attracted mice. This, in turn, attracted owls who then posed a significant bird strike risk to aircraft.

US Airways flight 1549 

While bird strikes are nothing new to aviation, the most memorable one happened when US Airways flight 1549 was climbing out of New York City’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. As the Airbus A320-200 reached an altitude of 2,818 feet (859 m), the plane struck a flock of Canada Geese, sucking several into the engines.

US Airways Flight 1549 Getty
US Airways flight 1549 went down in the Hudson after suffering a bird strike. Photo: Getty Images

All aboard heard a loud bang followed by fire shooting out of the engines and then silence with a smell of fuel. With a complete loss of power and unable to return to La Guardia or make it to Teterboro Airport (TEB) in New Jersey, Captain Chesley Sullenberger quickly decided that his best option was to ditch the plane in the Hudson River.

Clearing the George Washington Bridge by 900 feet (274m), Sully lands nose up at 150mph on the Hudson River in Midtown Manhattan, in what came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Ural Airlines flight 178

More recently, a Ural Airlines Airbus carrying 226 passengers and seven crew crash-landed into a cornfield after suffering a bird strike. The aircraft, an Airbus A321, had just taken off from Zhukovsky International Airport (ZIA), Moscow, en route to Crimea when it hit a flock of gulls. Opting not to deploy the landing gear to skid on top of the corn, Captain Damir Yusupov performed a hard landing without any fatalities. 

Ural Airlines A321
Ural Airlines Flight 178 crash-landed in a cornfield shortly after takeoff. Photo: Anna Zvereva via Wikimedia

Subsequent investigations into the incident blamed nearby illegal landfills and a river that attracted a proliferation of birds. In its response to the accident, airport authorities blamed the dump for birds congregating on the runway, warning all airlines of the potential for bird strikes when taking off and landing.

Have you ever been on a plane that suffered a bird strike and had to make an emergency landing? If so, we would love to read all about it in the comments.

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