Two incidents in three days did not allay nervous fliers’ fears of the bird threat. On January 2, Air Arabia flight G9 414 from Coimbatore to Sharjah made an emergency landing at an Indian airport after two eagles collided with an engine. On December 31, Air Malta flight KM377, bound for a Mediterranean island, was forced to return to Berlin shortly after takeoff after contact with birds.
So should aviators be worried?
According to the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), such occurrences are rarely dangerous – unless you’re a bird.
“Aircraft are designed and built to withstand bird strikes, and pilots undergo rigorous training to enable them to deal with eventualities such as bird strikes,” explained BALPA flight safety specialist Stephen Landells in 2017, former remote.
“I have experienced 10 bird strikes in my aviation career, none of which caused significant damage. In fact, in half the cases, due to the small size of the birds, I wasn’t aware I had hit one until I checked the plane after landing.”
Patrick Smith, a US pilot and author of Insider Information in the Cockpit, added: “As you might expect, aircraft components are built to withstand such impacts. You can see videos online of bird carcasses fired from a kind of chicken cannon to test the resistance of windshields, air intakes and so on.”
“I personally experienced a few impacts and the result was a minor dent at worst.
When a bird flies or gets sucked into an airplane engine, the poor creature usually falls apart. However, in incidents involving larger birds, the engine can suffer significant damage.
“The loss of one engine will not cause the aircraft to crash because they are designed to fly with one engine off,” said Landells. “However, multiple bird strikes – or strikes by large birds such as Canada geese – can and have caused serious accidents.”
The most notable example of this was US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009, dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson River”.
“Birds don’t clog the engine, but they can bend or break the inner blades, causing a loss of power,” explains Smith. “The heavier the bird, the greater the potential for damage. Flying at 250 knots (maximum altitude allowed below 10,000 feet where most birds are found) a mid-size goose strike will expose the aircraft to an impact force in excess of 50,000 lbs. Even small birds pose a threat if attacked en masse. In 1960, an Eastern Airlines turboprop crashed in Boston after encountering a flock of starlings.
Can bird collisions be prevented?
After the Hudson incident, New York airports resorted to culling hundreds of geese to prevent a repeat. This rather callous approach caused an outcry in 2013 when JFK biologists shot and killed two snowy owls, fearing the birds would fly onto the plane.
JFK was then sued by an animal rights group, but the court ultimately ruled in favor of the airport.
Although culling may sometimes be necessary, there are more humane ways to reduce bird strikes. For example, various airports have successfully used deterrents such as replaying distress calls, firing flares and even the controlled use of birds of prey.
In a 2017 interview, Heathrow Airport Operations Officer Joe Audcent told Telegraph Travel: “We monitor bird activity 24/7 and keep records. We also have a number of bird movement tactics. Vehicles used in airport operations are equipped with an electronic system called Digiscare. Two front-firing external loudspeakers are mounted on the roof. It is pre-programmed with distress calls for different birds and must be used correctly with the awareness that different species will respond in different ways.
“Most of the work, however, is preventative, involving the removal of food sources, managing grass length policies, covering open water and closely monitoring the bird’s flight paths.”
Landells added: “On the plane itself, there are ways to make the plane visible. It can be helpful to make sure the lights are on and fly at a speed that gives the birds a chance to get out of the way and reduce damage to the birds in the event of a collision.”
Ultimately though, prevention is better than cure: in other words, keep birds and planes away from each other if possible.
Such advice was not heeded by Boris Johnson, who, as London’s mayor, called for the construction of a new international airport at the mouth of the Thames – even though it is a key location for migratory birds. This plan was immediately shelved after the RSPB described it as “absurd”.