Airlines Bird Strikes
This undated handout photo provided by the city of Show Low, Ariz., shows the windshield of this twin-engine Beechcraft C-99 turboprop was heavily splattered with blood and guts after striking a Western Grebe, a two-foot long water bird, at 11,000 feet over eastern Arizona on Nov. 4, 2009.
updated 1/12/2010 11:00:33 AM ET 2010-01-12T16:00:33

Reports of airplanes hitting birds and other wildlife have soared in the year since a stricken U.S. Airways jet landed in New York's Hudson River, and the government's tally for last year could reach or even exceed 10,000 for the first time.

Serious accidents are climbing at a faster rate than minor incidents.

There were at least 57 cases in the first seven months of 2009 that caused serious damage and three in which planes and a corporate helicopter were destroyed by birds, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of the latest government figures available. At least eight people died, and six more were hurt.

The destroyed planes include the Airbus A320 that, with 155 passengers and crew, went into the Hudson a year ago this week after hitting a flock of Canada geese. No lives were lost in that dramatic river landing.

But when a Sikorsky helicopter crashed en route to a Gulf of Mexico oil platform last January after hitting a red-tailed hawk, the two pilots and six of seven passengers were killed. The lone survivor was critically injured.

And there is no shortage of frightening reports of knocked-out engines and emergency landings.

Why the increase in bird-strike reports?

Airports and airlines have become more diligent about reporting, said Mike Beiger, national coordinator for the airport wildlife hazards program at the Agriculture Department. But experts also say populations of large birds like Canada geese that can knock out engines on passenger jets have increased.

"Birds and planes are fighting for airspace, and it is getting increasingly crowded," said Richard Dolbeer, an expert on bird-plane collisions who is advising the Federal Aviation Administration and the Agriculture Department.

The surge in reports for 2009 — expected to be as much as 40 percent higher once the final accounting is in — comes in spite of government concerns that disclosing details about such strikes would discourage reports by airports and airlines out of worries about lost business. The previous high was 7,507 strikes in 2007. The government's estimate of as many as 10,000 for 2009 would represent about 27 strikes every day.

After US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson on Jan. 15, the AP asked the government for its data, including details about more than 93,000 strikes since 1990. Even after the FAA agreed to turn over the records to the AP, it quietly proposed a new federal rule to keep the information secret until Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood intervened and ordered the release. LaHood recently included the disclosure in a list of the department's leading safety accomplishments for last year.

"Going public doesn't appear to have harmed it, and every indicator I have is we have an increased industry awareness on the importance of reporting," said Kate Lang, FAA acting associate administrator for airports, in an interview.

Not all airports have been diligent. Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, for example, showed 46 strikes during the first seven months of 2008 but only 12 for the same period in 2009. When the AP asked about the decline, the airport said there were 28 strikes — not 12 — during that period in 2009 but the airport had neglected to report more than half of them.

Video: A look at airplane and bird collisions

A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, John Kelly, said the reporting failure was an oversight and the airport would immediately file the missing incidents. The authority manages the airport, which last year had one of the highest rates of bird strikes in the country.

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Dolbeer, the government's bird-strike expert, said a spate of serious collisions that took place miles (kilometers) away from airports was especially troubling.

On Nov. 4 over eastern Arizona, for instance, air cargo pilot Roger Wutke had just begun a descent from 11,000 feet (3,350 meters) in his twin-engine Beechcraft turboprop when a western grebe — a two-foot-long (0.61-meter) water bird — crashed through his windshield. The bird hit Wutke, knocking off his glasses, breaking his radio headset and splattering him in blood.

Unable to see out much of the shattered left windshield and unable to hear air traffic controllers, Wutke still managed to land the plane safely.

"I don't know how I did it," Wutke, 26, said in an interview. "It was pretty rough."

Two days earlier, a Delta Air Lines jet en route from Phoenix to Salt Lake City with 65 passengers struck grebes at about 12,000 feet (3660 meters). The impact tore a 21-inch (53 centimeter) hole in the MD-90's fuselage, forcing pilots to declare an emergency and return to Phoenix.

On Nov. 14, a Frontier Airlines Airbus A319 en route to Denver collided with a flock of snow geese at about 4,000 feet (1,220 meters), forcing the shutdown of one engine. The other engine was also struck but did not lose power. The plane returned to Kansas City for an emergency landing.

The FAA has mostly focused on keeping birds away from airports, where most strikes take place. But grebes and snow geese are migratory birds and were flying miles away from airports when these collisions took place — evidence that more attention is needed to reduce the threat of wildlife strikes away from airports, Dolbeer said.

The FAA said it is cracking down on airports that fail to complete required studies of risks from birds. The agency identified 91 airports that should have conducted formal assessments but did not, Lang said. It is also testing different bird-detecting radars, which enable workers to find birds and chase them away.

Some airports are replacing shrubbery that attracts birds and insects that other birds eat. In some cases, airports bring in predatory hawks to chase away flocks of smaller birds.

A government-industry committee that develops solutions to aviation safety problems recently agreed to make bird strikes one of its key research issues, Lang said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: The dangers of bird strikes

  1. Transcript of: The dangers of bird strikes

    ANN CURRY, co-host: Listen, you know, a flock of birds. It's hard to imagine that it could bring down a commercial airliner , but in fact, it's happened before , and in fact, it's a growing problem. NBC 's Tom Costello is at Reagan National Airport with more on this part of the story. Tom , good morning.

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Ann , good morning. As you probably know, the Reagan Airport here sits right on the Potomac River . You can see it right off of the runway there, and they have a constant problem here with birds. So every 30 -- every 90 seconds to three minutes they fire a cannon off to scare those birds away. But here's

    the issue: The geese population in this country is surging. Meanwhile, planes are getting quieter so the geese can't hear them coming. That makes the risk of an altercation with a flock of geese very real. From Manchester , England , YouTube video of a bird strike on a 757 nearly two years ago. Within seconds, the pilot realizes he's lost an engine.

    Offscreen Voice #1: Mayday, mayday, mayday.

    COSTELLO: It's not unusual. Bird strikes have been a problem since the Wright brothers started flying. In 2007 , there were more than 7600 bird and wildlife strikes on civil aircraft in the US. Since 1988 , more than 219 people have been killed worldwide because of bird strikes with the Canadian geese population up 400 percent since 1990 . This Pratt Whitney video shows the massive damage a large bird can inflict on an engine, turning the fan blades into flying shrapnel.

    Mr. RICHARD DOLBEER (Retired USDA Scientist): And if it collides with a Canada goose , which weighs about 10 pounds, that's the equivalent of taking a 1,000-pound weight and dropping it from a height of 10 feet . Tremendous force generated.

    COSTELLO: In New York , once the pilot realized he'd lost both engines, he put the plane down on the water, and because it was an Airbus A320 , he had an advantage.

    Mr. GREG FEITH: One of the things about the Airbus , the A320 Airbus , is that they actually have a button called the ditching button, where the crew will push that button. When they do it, all of the outflow valves, all of the ram air ports, everything that has an air flow through it in the fuselage seals up. So when the airplane then goes into the water, the fuselage is air-tight.

    Offscreen Voice #2: Inflate your vests, jump into the water.

    COSTELLO: And flight attendants practice for water landings, learning to never open the rear door first, since that can sink a plane . The 1549 crew did exactly that, following procedures and only opening the front doors and inflating the slides. Had they opened the rear door, the plane could have sunk tail first. Yeah, everything went just exactly as it was supposed to go. Listen, back to the bird issue for a moment, Ann. Airports around the country have been dealing with this issue with the surging bird population. Cannons, one option. They use strobes, they use dogs, they use falcons. But again, this is an issue that across the country they have been dealing with, wrestling with, and there's no quick, easy fix. Back to you.


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