The truth about bird strikes – and the weirdest ways airports avoid them

Airports use various methods to keep birds away - Getty

Airports use various methods to keep birds away – Getty

Two events in three days would have done little to allay fears of nervous flyers about the threat of bird strike. On January 2, Air Arabia flight G9 414 from Coimbatore to Sharjah made an emergency landing at the Indian airport after two eagles collided with an engine. On 31 December, Air Malta flight KM377 bound for the Mediterranean island had to return to Berlin shortly after takeoff after contact with the bird species.

So should flyers be worried?

According to the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), such incidents are rarely dangerous – unless you’re a bird.

“Airplanes are designed and built to withstand bird strikes, and pilots undergo rigorous training to ensure they can deal with contingencies like bird strikes,” said Stephen Landells, a former pilot, BALPA flight safety expert, in 2017.

“I have had 10 bird strikes in my flying career, none of which caused significant damage. In fact, due to the birds’ small size, I wasn’t half aware that I had hit one of the birds until I checked the plane after landing.”

Patrick Smith, a US pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, added: “As you might expect, aircraft components are made to tolerate this type of impact. Windshields, entrances, etc. You can see web videos of bird carcasses fired from a type of chicken ball to test its resistance.

“I personally had a few bumps and the result was, at worst, a minor dent.

When a bird flies or is pulled into the engine of an airplane, the poor creature often breaks apart. However, major damage to the engine can occur in accidents involving larger birds.

“Losing an engine does not cause an airplane to crash because they are designed to fly with one engine disabled,” Landells said. “However, multiple bird strikes – or strikes by large birds such as Canada geese – can and have caused serious accidents.”

The most notable recent example of this was the 2009 US Airways Flight 1549, dubbed the “Hudson Miracle”.

A US newspaper article about the Hudson Miracle - Getty

A US newspaper article about the Hudson Miracle – Getty

“Birds don’t clog an engine, but they can bend or break the inner wings, causing a loss of power,” explains Smith. “The heavier the bird, the greater the potential for damage. In 1960, an Eastern Airlines turboprop propeller crashed in Boston after encountering a flock of starlings.

Can bird strikes be prevented?

After the Hudson incident, airports in New York resorted to culling hundreds of excavations to prevent a recurrence. This rather callous approach sparked outrage in 2013 when wildlife biologists at JFK shot two snowy owls out of fear that the birds would board the plane.

JFK was later sued by an animal advocacy organization, but the court eventually ruled in favor of the airport.

While culling is sometimes necessary, there are more humane ways to reduce bird strikes. For example, intimidation measures such as issuing distress calls, firing flares and even the controlled use of raptors have been successfully implemented at various airports.

In a 2017 interview, Joe Audcent, an Airspace Operations Officer at Heathrow, told Telegraph Travel: “We monitor and record bird activity 24/7. We also have a variety of bird-moving tactics. Vehicles used in airport operations, It is equipped with an electronic system called Digiscare. Two front-facing external speakers are attached to the ceiling. It is pre-programmed with distress calls for various birds and must be used correctly, knowing how different species will respond in different ways.

“Still, much of the work is preventative, such as eliminating food sources, a controlled lawn length policy, closure of open waters and close monitoring of flight paths by birds.”

Landells added: “There are ways to make the plane visible on the plane itself. It can be helpful to make sure the lights are on and flying at a speed that gives birds a chance to get out of the way and reduces damage to birds should a collision occur.”

Ultimately though, prevention is better than cure: in other words, keep birds and planes as separate as possible.

Despite being an important destination for migratory birds, Boris Johnson, who spearheaded calls for a new international airport to be built on the Thames Estuary when London was the capital, did not heed such advice. This plan was shelved immediately after being labeled “nonsense” by the RSPB.

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