Feathery Thoughts

By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091

This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the October 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

It seems like just yesterday we were focused on keeping the cowl plugs installed when parked on the ground to prevent birds from nesting. That season has passed, but we can’t stop thinking about those native flyers with whom we share the skies. As we approach the fall migration, we should consider our fine feathered friends and take a few simple steps to help avoid the hazards they pose.

Inflicting Damage

Bird strikes can get ugly. Few will forget the accident that occurred when U.S. Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320, slammed into a flock of geese on departure from New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 2009. Both engines failed as a result of the collision, forcing pilot “Sully” Sullenberger, EAA Lifetime 1011839, to ditch in the Hudson River with 155 souls on board, inspiring the movie Sully. And while a large, fast-moving jet aircraft might seem a more likely candidate for bird strikes, serious damage can occur when a small aircraft slams into a bird.

A Cessna P210 was departing Gainesville, Florida, in December 2019 when it experienced a bird strike. According to the NTSB report, “The pilot reported that, during the initial climb and while about 1,500 feet mean sea level, he saw a bird flying ‘straight up,’ but when it reached the airplane’s altitude, it turned toward the airplane. The bird then impacted the propeller, continued through the left side of the windshield, and struck the pilot’s face. The airplane began descending, but the pilot regained control of the airplane, declared an emergency, and landed without further incident. The airplane sustained substantial damage to the windshield.”

That same month, the pilot of a Van’s RV-10 reported that while in the traffic pattern and turning from base to final at Granbury, Texas, a large bird slammed into the leading edge of the right wing, causing substantial damage to the wing structure and making airplane control difficult. Luckily, the pilot landed safely on the intended runway.

In August 2019, the pilot of a Beech 35 on downwind at Fort Myers, Florida, was about 1,000 feet above the ground when a bird struck the propeller and cowling. The pilot was able to maneuver and land the airplane without further incident, but the airplane sustained substantial damage to the firewall and forward fuselage.

Other pilots are not always as fortunate as these. According to the FAA, 47 wildlife strikes are reported daily on average, and some 94 percent of the reported strikes involve birds. That’s more than 16,000 bird strikes annually, and some of them have resulted in injuries and death for pilots and passengers.

Where Birds Fly

Perhaps our first step in mitigating or avoiding bird hazards is recognizing the environments, times, and conditions where bird strikes are more likely. It’s no secret that many birds prefer open, grassy areas with an abundance of seeds and insects on which to feed. Many seek areas of tall, unmowed grass that provide shelter and can hide them from predators. Birds such as hawks and other raptors will circle open grassy areas as they hunt for mice, rabbits, and other small mammals hidden in the grass. So, it’s no surprise that the open, grassy areas surrounding many airports are a common habitat for birds.

Areas on or near the water are also common bird habitats. Birds that feed on fish and aquatic vegetation commonly reside near rivers, marshes, lakes, and ponds. When such water features are close to runways, the danger can be particularly high, since these habitats are often home to larger birds, including ducks, geese, and herons.

Airports in coastal areas are particularly hazardous at low tide when birds feed in the intertidal zones along the shore and in shallow estuaries. Some birds pick up shellfish such as oysters and drop them on nearby pavement — such as runways — to crack open the shells. Not only does that pose the danger of a bird strike, but falling shellfish (some with rocks attached!), broken shells, and stones left behind on the runways also pose a serious threat.

Seagulls and ibises are frequently encountered near municipal landfills, transfer stations, and fish-packing plants to take advantage of readily available food sources. Note that landfills and transfer stations are often and unfortunately located close to airports.

Most bird strikes occur in daylight hours when birds tend to be more active. Birds may feed at any time of day, but the most common times are the early morning hours and again near dusk. These are the times when the risk of collision is heightened.

Peak spring (March and April) and fall (September through October) migration seasons are also particularly hazardous for pilots. Flocks of birds follow well-established migratory routes called “flyways.” These routes follow coastlines, mountain ranges, and rivers along which birds can readily find food and shelter. Perhaps most dangerous is the fall migration when young and inexperienced birds take to the air. Less nimble than their more experienced counterparts, the younger birds are frequently less adept at avoiding aircraft. The majority of bird strikes occur between July and October due to increased activity not only of the birds but pilots as well.

Tips for Bird Strike Avoidance

To help minimize the risk of a bird strike, consider the following:

  1. Expect to see birds when flying near the environments where they live, hunt, and feed.
  2. When encountering birds in the air, pull up and climb over them, since their natural reaction is to dive.
  3. When encountering birds near the ground, expect them to fly up to escape the perceived threat.
  4. Use lights (especially flashing landing lights). These are not 100 percent effective in alerting birds to our presence, but they may help.
  5. Keep speeds slower, especially when at low altitudes and in the pattern. This allows both birds and pilots to maneuver out of the way more easily, and the kinetic energy of an impact is reduced.
  6. If you suspect a bird strike has occurred, land promptly and carefully examine the aircraft for damage.
  7. Report bird strikes through the FAA at Wildlife.FAA.gov/Add.

Looking Ahead

On a cool morning in early September, I taxied out for departure in a BN-2 Islander. The 2,600-foot overcast shaded the sun from my eyes, and the wind was light out of the southeast. Normally, I would depart on Runway 14, but as I approached the intersection of the runways, I spotted a large flock of geese gathered in the grass. I knew that as I approached the geese on my takeoff run, they would likely be alarmed and fly up at just the wrong moment.

Thinking better of the situation, I rerouted my taxi to Runway 07. This would give me a few hundred extra feet of runway before reaching the flock of geese. Arriving pilots might choose Runway 14 for landing, but the last thing I needed was to slam into a flock of departing geese immediately after liftoff. I made a careful scan of the sky and three radio calls before pushing the throttles forward. Luckily, the geese stayed well below me as I climbed out toward my destination.

Bird strikes pose a true hazard, especially during the fall migration season. The more we know about birds and their habits, and the more we pay attention to the warning signs and plan accordingly, the more likely we are to avoid the hazards.

Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.

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