For the Birds Radio Program: Airplane Collisions (Reworked)

Original Air Date: Dec. 6, 1990

Laura talks about the history of airplane-bird collisions, and about why the Duluth landfill had to close and relocate to prevent these collisions.

Duration: 4′05″


(Original Script from 1988-01-29)

Birds and Aircraft

(Recording of an American White Pelican)

The most tragic of all interactions between birds and humans take place in the air, when birds fly into aircraft. At least one out of every 10,000 airplane flights involves a collision with a bird. Usually the bird’s body bounces off the plane without harm to the plane or its passengers, but if the bird is large enough, or if it collides with a critical part of the plane, the collision can result in human deaths as well. The worst case in the U.S. was on October 4, 1960, when an Eastern Airlines Electra jet taking off from Logan International Airport in Boston struck a flock of starlings. They clogged the jet engines, causing the plane to crash, killing 62 of the 72 people aboard. The scorched feathers were sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where they were positively identified by Roxie Laybourne, our country’s most notable expert on the identification of bird feathers.

The crash of a B-1 Bomber last fall, which killed three of the six crew members, apparently all came about because of a single bird–an American White Pelican that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It left no feathers behind, but was apparently identified by the survivors.

The first record of an airplane colliding with a bird was in 1910, when a pilot flying a plane at Long Beach, California, collided with a gull. The bird got stuck between the plane’s fin and rudder, causing the plane to crash–the pilot was killed.

I recently found myself reading A Singular View, a book about how people manage after losing their sight in one eye. The author was an Air Force jet pilot who lost his own eye when the windshield of his fighter jet crashed into a female mallard. This man just happened to be one of the Air Force’s experts on bird-plane collisions, and had just developed a technique of shooting dead chickens from cannons at aircraft to simulate high-speed collisions. His research demonstrated that heavier windshields were necessary on jets, and he had drawn up the new specifications himself. Ironically, the very jet he was co-piloting when it crashed into the duck was scheduled to get the newly developed windshield the following week.

Birds usually collide with planes at altitudes lower than 5,000 feet, but the highest bird-plane collision took place at 37,000 feet over western Africa, when a vulture called a Ruppell’s griffon struck a commercial airliner. Roxie Laybourne identified it with five complete and fifteen partial feathers which stuck to the plane. Collisions are most common during spring and fall, when birds are migrating. But plane- bird collisions can occur on takeoff and landing with local birds any time of year. Worldwide, the worst problems come from gulls. Crows from Western Europe are in second place. Shorebirds are a close third–especially sandpipers and Black- bellied Plovers. Airports are usually built on flat lowland areas where these flocking birds are abundant, and many airports are on the outskirts of cities near landfills. In Duluth, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District had to temporarily close the dump and develop restrictions to minimize its gull problem because of the danger the gulls posed at Duluth International Airport.

Chickens shot from cannons still help to minimize the danger to aircraft, which may eventually change the fear of flying into fear of friers.

(Recording of a chicken?)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”