For the Birds Radio Program: Airplane-Bird Collisions

Original Air Date: Jan. 21, 2009

“The Miracle on the Hudson” plane crash has made Americans aware of what is actually a very old issue. What’s happening to protect us?

Duration: 4′38″


Bird Strike Last week’s plane crash into the Hudson River got the nation talking about issues surrounding birds and airplanes. We who keep up with the news in the northland were confronted with another, more tragic case of a bird strike two weeks ago when the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that the small plane carrying two young people that crashed last October, killing both people, had struck Canada Geese.. Many of the accounts of both plane accidents said that birds caused the crash, as if these birds were kamikaze pilots who plotted out their own flight path specifically to intersect that of airplanes. And now a narrow, fearful sector is calling for getting rid of birds. One Pennsylvania newspaper carried an editorial headlined, “Our opinion: Praise the pilot; shoot the birds,” and read in part, “We don’t care if they are bald eagles, California condors or doves sent straight here from Heaven. The lives of people are more important. Shoot them, trap them, divert them … but reduce the chances of birds snuffing airplane engines. “From 1990 to 2007, there were nearly 80,000 reported incidents of birds striking nonmilitary aircraft, about one strike for every 10,000 flights, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Agriculture. The danger is greatest at takeoff and landing. Let’s reduce the danger.” But people working for airplane safety have been working successfully for decades to reduce the danger. Just because the editors at a Pennsylvania newspaper had never thought about the danger of sharing airspace with birds doesn’t mean that people who design airplanes and people who manage airports are equally ignorant. Commercial planes are designed to withstand impact with large birds—small planes such as the one in the October crash don’t have the same safety design protections, not because human life isn’t valuable but because we humans value our personal freedom, and would bitterly oppose any government measures that required the expensive safeguards on private planes. The most vulnerable part on the plane, the engines, are hardest to protect, but even they are ore protected than they once were. Collisions between birds and planes are far less likely to cause human fatalities than collisions between automobiles, or between automobiles and deer or moose, but every single time a plane hits a bird, the bird dies, so even if some misanthropic person’s priorities were horribly skewed to favor animals, eliminating these accidents would still be desirable. But it’s impossible to kill all the birds, so there will always be risks. And the problem is exacerbated by our constructing our cities on major waterways. Ironically, because takeoffs and landings are always the most critical times of any flight, as well as because jets are so noisy, we try to minimize housing and other developments near airports, and to keep this open land undeveloped, we often designate it as a wildlife refuge. The Twin Cities airport is built right next to the Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. They’ve been relocating Snowy Owls that turned up by the airport this year, both to protect the birds and the aircraft. People continue to find ways to minimize the number of collisions between aircraft and birds, and to minimize the damage to planes when these collisions do occur. That’s about all we can do. And in the rare cases when a plane does crash because of birds, we should be ever so grateful when the pilots and crew react so quickly, intelligently, and effectively that they save every person on board. Engineering can go only so far. The rest is in our hands.