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”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - �Alan Levin

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.

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