When Feathered Friends Become Foes

My personal experience with bird strikes came during a night instrument training flight in a Mooney. I caught a glimpse of a feathered wing in the landing light beam, felt a slight bump, and that was it. When we landed, there were a few splotches of blood and feathers on the tail. Sorry. Not nearly as dramatic as the experience of US Airways Flight 1549's crew. I do remember a friend describing his much more profound collision with a seagull. It came through the windshield of his Cessna 150 and filled the tiny cockpit with a gut-wrenching combination of wind and the gull's swirling mortal remains. He was able to keep his composure and land the airplane, where an FAA inspector actually looked through the shattered, bloody windshield and asked him for some proof that he had hit a bird.

According to an FAA advisory, colliding with a two-pound bird at 120 mph results in 4,800 pounds of force. Another FAA study revealed 16,000 bird strikes over the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands during a seven-year period. Eighty percent of those occurred within 1,000 feet of the surface, but bird strikes have been recorded as high as 20,000 feet.

As the pilots of Flight 1549 discovered, birds can dismantle a turbofan engine -- or two -- in the blink of an eye. There is a video circulating that shows a Rolls-Royce Trent turbofan dramatically self-destructing on a test stand after ingesting a three-pound chicken carcass. For pilots of propeller-driven aircraft, the dangers are more in line with what my friend experienced with the bird joining him in the cockpit via the windshield. The other primary concern is damaged wings or control surfaces. So what can you do to minimize the danger of bird strikes? Fly high enough to avoid all but the most adventurous birds. And be on particular alert on climb-out or during the descent phase. If you have a copilot or passengers, ask them to stay alert and point out birds if they see them; especially when you are momentarily head-down consulting charts or checklists. Even if you hit a bird, it can make all the difference if someone can tell you what caused that loud bang.

Dawn and dusk are particularly vulnerable times. Illuminating your landing and/or taxi lights can help alert the birds you're there, if the roaring of the engine isn't enough to clue them in to your arrival in their airspace.

If you appear to be on a collision course, climb away. Birds usually dive to escape danger, and your mechanical predator certainly qualifies as such to his bird brain. The operative word is "usually" since you never know when you'll find a rugged individualist among the flock who has his own ideas on evasive action.

Finally, be particularly aware around airports. Open spaces are attractive to flocks of birds looking for a rest stop. And for a lot of municipal planners, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time to collocate the airport and the local landfill. Unfortunately, birds flock to a landfill like, well, birds to a landfill. So be particularly aware when you see the telltale bulldozers and circling flocks above.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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