The US Airways Crash: A Growing Bird Hazard

The plane was forced down after flying into a flock of birds.
The plane was forced down after flying into a flock of birds (Bebeto Matthews / AP)

By M.J. Stephey Friday, Jan. 16, 2009, Time.com

There are many remarkable aspects of the emergency landing made by U.S. Airways flight 1549 — the pilot’s ability to make a controlled landing a stone’s throw from Manhattan in the Hudson River, the speedy response of nearby ferries and tour boats, the fact that no passengers were seriously hurt. But among the surprises was the fact that the incident appeared to be caused not by terror attack or mechanical failure, but by a wayward flock of geese.

While the National Transportation Safety Board has yet to conduct a full investigation, authorities believe the geese were sucked into the plane’s two jet engines, causing immediate engine failure, shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia airport. The aircraft, an Airbus A320, has engines designed to sustain damage from a bird weighting up to a four pounds, according to Todd Curtis, founder of Airsafe.com and an aviation safety expert. Canada geese — the suspected culprits — weigh an average of 10 pounds. More than 219 people have been killed worldwide as a result of wildlife strikes since 1988, according to the volunteer organization Bird Strike Committee USA.

“Wildlife mitigation” is the official phrase for avoiding accidents like these and, according to the government’s latest report on the topic, it’s becoming an increasing concern. The report, which was released in June by the FAA, the USDA, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Wildlife Service, found that since 1990 the number of bird strikes has quadrupled, from 1,759 in 1990 to a record 7,666 in 2007. Officials cite a number of possible causes for the increase:

• Most commercial airlines are now replacing older, three- and four-engine planes with more efficient double-engine aircraft. Because these newer engines are quieter, birds are less likely to detect and avoid them. Worse still, fewer engines mean fewer back-ups should a plane and a flock of birds cross paths.

• While officials use radar and radio collars to track bird populations, habitat destruction and climate change have disrupted migratory patterns. Moreover, the populations of certain species of bird are increasing at rapid rates, thanks to changes in food supply. The Canada goose population, for example, has grown 7.3% annually from 1980 to 2006.

• Air traffic has increased markedly during that same period, growing from 310 million airline passengers in 1980 to a record 749 million in 2007, meaning the skies are more crowded for both birds and Airbuses.

• To further complicate matters, officials must be careful to identify which particular type of bird are struck in each incident to help biologists conduct “wildlife management programs” without violating laws that protect endangered species.

It’s not just a civilian concern either. In 1995, the U.S. military began re-evaluating its BASH (Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard) program after a $270 million U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry struck a flock of 31 Canada geese during takeoff, causing a fiery crash that killed 24 servicemen. Solutions to the problem currently in use include habitat modification (planting specific types of grass that are distasteful to birds) aversion tactics (using dispersal teams, AKA “goose guys”, to scare them away) and lethal control (killing a specific number to reduce populations).

Commercial airports like New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, meanwhile, have gotten just as creative: Hawks and falcons, which fly solo and are therefore less dangerous, are released near runways to scare flocks of sea gulls and geese. Other airports hunt and destroy bird nests and eggs.

“The risk is real,” Curtis says, “Birds are a threat every day.” Even so, the fact that birds disabled both engines of U.S. Airways flight 1549 simultaneously is far from common. “Only on rare occasions do you have them causing a crash [like this].”

Source : time.com

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