For the Birds Radio Program: F-16 Crash

Original Air Date: Oct. 21, 1992

How can a four-ounce bird destroy a $27 million aircraft? (Date verified)

Audio missing


One of the most fascinating and exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with has been the investigation of the F-16 crash that took place in Duluth last month.

The crash happened Friday, September 18. An Air National Guard F-16 taking off on a routine flight out of Duluth International Airport crashed. In the few seconds he had to react, Major David Johnson, the pilot, managed to steer the plane away from houses and then eject, and thanks to his quick actions, there were no serious injuries or human fatalities.

When I heard about it on the news that night, my stomach lurched. Well-inspected aircraft don’t normally crash on take-off in perfect weather under an expert pilot unless a bird is involved. That Friday happened to be an incredible migration day at Hawk Ridge in Duluth. Over 8,000 Broad-winged Hawks had been counted along with plenty of other hawks. Broad-wings fly on days with good northwest winds, often associated with high pressure systems. And this kind of weather provides perfect migration conditions for a host of other birds. Since Duluth is a migration magnet, it seemed to me that the only likely explanation for the accident was a collision with one of these hapless migrants. Nobody mentioned anything about birds in the media. but I had a sinking feeling that it was only a matter of time.

A week later, one of my friends in the Air National Guard mentioned a rumor floating around that the plane had crashed into a hawk. I sure hoped not, and statistics were on my side. There just aren’t many aircraft collisions with birds of prey. Worldwide, the most likely birds to collide with planes are gulls, followed in Europe by crows and jackdaws, and worldwide by shorebirds. The Black-bellied Plover is one of the top shorebird culprits in these kinds of accidents, but many different sandpipers have been involved in crashes. Waterfowl cause a great many plane losses in the United States.

A B-1 bomber that crashed in Colorado in the fall of 1987, killing three of the plane’s crew, is believed to have been caused with the plane collided with a 15-pound pelican. The B-1 was originally designed to withstand impacts of birds weighing up to 6 pounds, about the weight of a Snow Goose, and six times the weight of a Broad-winged Hawk. An Air Force official said at the time that the mass of the pelican against the speed of the plane would have been like a bowling ball operating at the speed of sound. After that crash, B-1 bombers were reinforced to provide even more protection from bird collisions.

Not all serious bird-aircraft collisions have involved big birds. One of the most tragic of all these crashes happened on October 4, 1960, when an Eastern Airlines Electra jet struck a flock of starlings, birds which average less than three ounces. The birds clogged the jet engines, and the crash killed 62 of the 72 people aboard.

Many bird-plane accidents involve military aircraft. Because so many military bases are along coasts or on islands, it makes sense that gulls and shorebirds are implicated so often.

Anyway, it seemed to me that the most likely explanation of the F-16 crash was collision with a bird. Sure enough, I soon found out that the plane had collided with a flock of golden plovers. Next time I’ll tell you about the investigation. Read Part II here