Birds & Aviation Safety Don’t Get Along

Everybody remembers the US Airways plane floating on the Hudson River on 15 January 2009 after the pilot successfully ditched into the water. The cause was a double engine failure caused by multiple bird strikes. This “happy end” incident reminded us that bird strikes remain a threat to aviation safety. This is why pilots welcome the development of bird detection techniques aimed at improving awareness and knowledge about the presence of birds. However, before they are implemented at the operational level, these techniques must be correctly assessed.

Bird strike
Photo by Akin Diler,

Bird strikes happen every day. Indeed, almost every pilot will be able to tell you a story about them. Most of the occurrences are inconsequential. In less than 10% of the cases, however, they result in damage to the aircraft and, in the worst case scenario, in fatal accidents, which have caused 229 lives to be lost since 1988.

The most critical phases of flight for bird strikes are take-off and initial climb, which means that the most problematic issue is the presence of birds at or near airports. It is therefore the task of the airport team in charge of runway safety issues (Local Runway Safety Teams) to look for solutions and mitigating measures.

Engine after bird strike
Photo by John Musolino,

After carrying out a risk assessment, some first-step basic measures can be taken, such as making the airport area as unfriendly as possible to birds, e.g. avoiding water and specific vegetation. Reporting is another key element: pilots need to report all occurrences, to help improve knowledge and awareness of birds near airports.

Nevertheless, in some areas with a high presence of birds, these measures are not enough. This is the reason bird detection techniques are under development for two different applications:

  • A strategic use: the aim is to improve knowledge of local and regional bird movements in the airport vicinity. This will help in the development of a bird hazard prevention programme or in improving the airport design and use, etc.
  • Real-time tactical use: the use of information derived from bird detection techniques during flight operation itself by wildlife controllers, air traffic controllers and flight crew, e.g. by postponing the take-off or discontinuing the approach in case of a bird alert in the vicinity of the runway

While the first application can be very useful, the second is much more complex and needs to be fully assessed, before it is implemented at the operational level. Beyond the technical aspects, some key questions will have to be answered, such as the role of the pilots and air traffic controllers and the way they have to handle the information received to take the safest decision. After all, it is always the pilots’ final responsibility to carry out the flight safely.