Of all the things that could cause something to go wrong during a flight, you might not think that a bird strike would be high on the list. After all, airplanes are made of millions of parts, including some very sophisticated electronics, that could potentially malfunction and create issues. Yet a simple bird colliding with a plane can lead to complications.
One extreme and famous example of a bird strike with severe consequences is the January 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 which hit a flock of Canada geese after taking off from LaGuardia airport. The plane lost all engine power and had to make an emergency landing on New York City’s Hudson River.
We talked with Tyler Herbert, an airline pilot in Canada, to get an expert’s answer to our most pressing questions about bird strikes. Herbert has been a commercial pilot for 13 years, flying several different types of aircraft including the King Air 200, Dash 8, Q400, 787, and the 777. You can follow his flying adventures on Instagram at therb777.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Matador Network: How serious can a bird strike be? Can a bird strike cause a plane to crash?
Tyler Herbert: The vast majority of bird strikes are not dangerous. It is a fairly regular occurrence, and almost always something the public will not be aware of. That is not to say they can’t be serious, but the percentage of bird strikes causing severe problems with aircraft are very low. The odds of a strike happening each flight are quite low as well, but in our world today there are a staggering amount of flights that take place each day.
In 2017, there were approximately 14,000 recorded bird strikes in the US alone. Examples of significant problems that could be caused by bird strikes would be engine damage, or damage to the airframe such as broken windows. To my knowledge there have only been two commercial airliner crashes due to bird strikes since 2009.
Can passengers feel or hear a bird strike? Would it shake the aircraft?
Unless the plane is quite small, passengers won’t be able to feel a bird strike. You could possibly see the strike depending on where it occurs, especially if it strikes the wing or engine. It is also probably not something passengers would be able to hear, unless there were many birds or a very large bird, or the strike occurred very near where they are sitting in the aircraft. The plane will also not have any noticeable movement after a bird strike, unless it is a very small aircraft. Even then it’s unlikely. The contact itself shouldn’t cause any movement as the aircraft will have much more momentum than the bird.
If a bird does not get sucked in by the engine but only hits the fuselage, how serious can it get?
If there is no damage that is obvious to us [the pilots] and the aircraft is performing normally we will continue the flight. Upon arrival at the next destination the aircraft will be inspected for any signs of a bird strike and any issues found will be dealt with accordingly before the next departure. If we have any reason to suspect there could be a safety issue due to a bird strike we would return to our departure airport. The safety of the flight is always our number one priority.
As far as fuselage damage due to a bird strike, this wouldn’t normally be a very serious issue. Any small dents that may occur should have very little effect on the flying characteristics of the aircraft. The most significant damage that could occur to the fuselage would be damage to the windscreen on the front of the aircraft that could cause visibility issues.
Are there any recent examples of a bird strike that caused a major plane accident besides the Hudson River landing of January 2009?
This is definitely the best example of a bird strike causing a major accident. I have seen videos of smaller aircraft coming into contact with larger birds on the windscreen causing the glass to break. This would certainly be a scary incident, but should not cause a crash.
Bird strikes causing one of the engines to flame out is also something that has happened, but commercial airliners are designed to be able to fly with an engine failure. This would be an example of a time that a bird strike would cause a return to the airport of departure.
Are bird strikes only a problem during takeoff and landing?
Bird strikes are possible at high altitude as larger birds can be found at altitudes above 10,000 feet. But the odds of finding a lone bird in that much space are slim.The further the plane is from the ground the less likely a bird strike will occur. Most birds will be close to ground level which means that the vast majority of bird strikes take place during takeoff and landing.
Have you personally experienced a bird strike?
I have experienced several bird strikes. I have hit a flock of small gulls during takeoff in a King Air [a twin turboprop aircraft]. We were at a speed where we were able to reject the takeoff and return to the hangar for maintenance. I have also hit birds in the Dash 8 [also a twin turboprop aircraft, but larger] on final approach. But I have operated thousands of flights and can count on one hand the amount of bird strikes I have had. The percentage of occurrence is quite low. Many times where we have seen birds near the aircraft on takeoff or landing and suspected a strike there has been no evidence found.
What is done to prevent bird strikes in airports and aboard airplanes?
The best way to prevent bird strikes is to keep the areas around airports as uninviting to birds as possible. The idea is to make the airport an area where birds don’t want to spend time. Unfortunately this is easier said than done. As far as avoiding birds, studies show that lights, noise, etc. don’t help much, if at all, with avoiding bird strikes.
Other ways to avoid bird strikes would be to delay takeoff if there are birds noticed near the runway, and to use a steeper angle of climb for the first 3,000 feet or so on departure, where the majority of the risk of a strike is.
Is there a time of the year or a region of the world when/where bird strikes are more common?
Bird strikes can occur any time birds are present. Birds are present in larger numbers during the summer typically, so that increases the chances of a strike occurring. If the area around the airport gives birds a reason to be there, this would be another reason why you may have a higher number of bird strikes in that area. Things that make airports attractive to birds would be large bodies of water, easy access to food (such as garbage dumps), and nesting areas.