May 3, 2012

Unpacked: Bird Strikes

Sometimes It’s A Bird AND A Plane (but sadly, no Superman)…

Image courtesy of taylar on Flickr

Welcome to Unpacked, where we demystify hot topics in the airline industry!

Following last week’s incident, we received lots of questions from people about what happened and about what happens generally when there’s a “bird strike.” While the nomenclature might seem obvious, there’s actually a lot that goes into how the airline industry, airports and organizations plan around these unfortunate incidents when a fine-feathered friend comes into an untimely encounter with an aircraft. As a fellow denizen of the sky, we love all birds equally and do our best to protect our cousin aviators.

After the “Miracle on the Hudson” incident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came up with two recommendations that pertained directly to wildlife strike prevention:

  • All Part 139 airports are required to complete a Wildlife Hazard Assessment and have a wildlife hazard management plan in place.  These assessments require a one-year study of the wildlife and habitat, with the development of a mitigation plan using guidelines within State and Federal regulations.
  • Work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop/implement innovative technologies that can be installed on aircraft that would reduce the likelihood of a bird strike.  There is bird avoidance radar information that they have been looking into that would get info to the ATC tower and in turn to the flight crews.

There is an annual USA Bird Strike Committee pow wow to discuss the issue and to come up with new and innovative ways to minimize future occurrences. We attend every year and participate (this year’s will be held in Memphis in August).

In the event of a minor bird strike where little to no damage is reported, the pilots can opt to land early to have the aircraft inspected. If the damage is more severe, and meets NTSB reportable guidelines, the FAA may send people out in support of the investigation. In addition, the individual airline’s maintenance crews will inspect the aircraft. The FAA actually keeps a “wildlife strike database” where they report on the voluntary submissions they receive from airlines.

We’re actively involved in reporting bird strikes to the FAA database. Currently, our policy requires crewmembers to report all wildlife strikes with our aircraft and send any remains to the Smithsonian Institution for further examination. According to the Smithsonian Institution, JetBlue remains in the top three for sending remains in for identification.

Airline participation in sending in remains to the Smithsonian Institution helps each airport identify the wildlife on their property, and then gives the airport an opportunity to adjust the environment that attracts those species. If sparrows prefer millet, thistle, weed, and sunflower seeds, for instance, and a particular airport has a large indigenous species of sparrows, it might adjust its landscaping to reduce flora that are attractive to the local species, reducing the number of birds that will be near planes taking off and landing.

In addition to measures taken to monitor bird activity in the area, planes themselves are also tested with this in mind. There is actually something called a “chicken gun” that’s used to test potential situations (no chickens are harmed). There’s also an urban legend about whether frozen poultry has the same impact as thawed – MythBusters took this question on last year.

Check out our previous editions of Unpacked and stay tuned for the next up!

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