Close encounters of the bird kind
▶ Growing populations of large species raise the risk to planes ▶ “To the industry, this is becoming business as usual”
In a drab warehouse beneath the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, Carla Dove tries to solve mysteries. On a December afternoon, she has just a fragment of a black feather, which was found after a jet slammed into a bird in California, to help identify the species. The Gulfstream G550 corporate jet landed safely after its left wing struck the bird just before touchdown, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Based on the fragment’s size and color, Dove heads straight to the cabinet holding a preserved 3-foot-tall golden eagle. The species averages about 8.6 pounds, more than enough to tear an engine apart or blast a hole in an airliner’s fuselage. “This is a huge bird,” she says. She compares its black plumage to her broken feather. The sample is a match.
Seven years after a flock of Canada geese forced a US Airways Airbus A320 jet down into the Hudson River, the number of cases of planes striking large birds capable of doing serious damage has risen sharply. Collisions rose 37 percent from 2000 to 2014, according to the most recent data available from the FAA. There were 284 such cases in 2014, the most since the agency began collecting records in 1990. “The risk of bird strikes is increasing everywhere around the world,” says Valter Battistoni, an Italian consultant who advises airlines and runs the website birdstrike.it.
Dove, a forensic ornithologist with a doctorate from George Mason University, sees the evidence in her office at the Smithsonian, where she receives feathers and bird remains recovered from planes and runways. In fiscal 2008 her lab received 787 samples from civilian aviation. In the last fiscal year, it got 3,412. The Smithsonian now has a DNA library of bird species so it can identify the victims from recovered tissue samples, known as “snarge,” when feathers aren’t available.
Identifying the species can help authorities direct efforts to reduce or scare away certain bird populations. Dove’s predecessor, Roxie Laybourne, invented feather forensics after a flock of starlings took down an Eastern Airlines plane in Boston in 1960, killing 62. Dove, who started at the Smithsonian in 1989, worked alongside Laybourne until her death in 2003. The surge in the lab’s caseload since has left Dove frustrated. “To the industry, this is becoming business as usual,” Dove says. “It’s an accepted risk, because they think there is nothing they can do about it. That’s completely wrong.”
While some think the increase in strikes may be due to better reporting, the FAA has said it’s considering stronger aircraft structures and lower speed limits at low altitudes, which would lessen the force of impacts. “The bird strike threat has increased, especially the threat due to larger birds,” the agency said in a June 25 notice. One reason is a growth in bird populations, particularly of large species that travel in flocks, which can inflict damage to multiple engines. The North American population of Canada geese has grown to 5.7 million, from about 2.6 million in 1990, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Some safety advocates say the FAA should be doing more, such as halting flights when bird activity is high and revising flight paths to avoid known danger areas. “I don’t know how many of these high-risk threats you have to go through before people wake up,” says Paul Eschenfelder, a former airline pilot who’s an adjunct professor at Embry-riddle Aeronautical University.
Deaths caused by plane crashes involving birds are rare, but there have been several close calls in recent years, including the so-called Miracle on the Hudson on Jan. 15, 2009. Geese snuffed out both of US Airways Flight 1549’s engines after it left New York’s Laguardia Airport, and only fast action by the pilots—and a lot of luck— kept it from crashing, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. All 155 people on board got to
safety after the plane ditched in the Hudson. In that case, Dove’s lab used hydrogen isotopes to determine that the birds were part of a migrating flock, not year-round New York residents.
From 2012 through 2014, there were 305 cases in the U.S. in which birds caused substantial damage to a commercial aircraft, according to FAA records. In 2014, a Southwest Airlines plane struck a flock of Canada geese while preparing to land at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The Boeing 737-700 was hit on its nose, left wing, and in both engines. While the pilots landed safely, passengers reported the right engine was on fire as it neared the runway. In the two weeks around Thanksgiving, collisions were reported in Denver, Las Vegas, and Kansas City, Mo. No one died in any of those incidents. “I don’t even know what to say,” says Dove. “Are we lucky?”
The bottom line Growth in populations of large birds has increased risks to airliners, but regulations haven’t changed.
DATA COMPILED BY BLOOMBERG