Why Birds Won’t Cause Your Airplane to Crash
Matt Damon has played a lot of incredible characters, but one of his best moments came when he played Liz Lemon’s pilot boyfriend, Carol, on 30 Rock. Carol was no fan of Chelsy “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully ditched his plane in the Hudson Bay after it hit a flock of birds. “You know what a great pilot would have done? Not hit the birds,” said Carol. “That’s what I do every day: not hit birds. Where’s my ticket to the Grammys?”
While Carol’s objection to Sullenberg’s claim to fame was hilarious, here’s the thing—it wouldn’t matter if Carol hit a few birds now and then. These so-called bird strikes are defined as a collision between a bird and an aircraft. They usually occur during landing (about 60 percent of the time, according to the FAA) with another 37 percent of wildlife strikes occurring during take-off and climb. Bird strikes are very common occurrences, happening every single day despite pilot’s efforts to “not hit the birds.” According to the FAA, there were 13,688 in 2014 alone. There were even two bird strikes in one day at JFK last August.
Because they are so common, commercial jets are designed to withstand collisions with birds. According to Boeing, who makes many of the commercial planes flying the skies, “Bird strikes have always been a part of aviation” and “usually cause no more than minor damage.” Like lightning strikes, bird strikes can seem alarming to passengers, but planes are designed to take the collision and keep on going.
Generally, bird strikes are a hit-and-run situation with smaller birds disappearing into engines and larger birds usually causing minimal damage to hulls, engines, or plane noses. The force will sometimes crack windshields, leaving dings and bumps on the plane, but it’s still completely safe to fly. Most of the time pilots and passengers may have no clue that they hit a bird until they leave the plane and see a dent. In a small percentage of bird strikes, damage occurs, and in an even smaller percentage there’s catastrophic damage. Sullenberger’s experience was extremely rare. The Airbus A320 he was flying took on an entire flock of Canada geese as it took off from LaGuardia. Canada geese are large birds and hitting the flock managed to kill both engines. While planes are designed to work with one engine, when both went out, Sullenberger had to take emergency action, which he was well prepared to do, because pilots undergo rigorous training to deal with these situations.
In addition to pilots being trained for bird-strikes and airplanes being designed to withstand them, airports also work to remove wildlife from the area to mitigate the danger. In fact, the FAA requires airports to conduct Wildlife Hazard Assessments (WHA) and they send posters to airports warning about the dangers of lurking wildlife, filled with catchy phrases like “Safety Doesn’t Happen By Accident” and Uncle Sam pointing his finger at airports: “I Want You To Report All Strikes.” The FAA collects the data in a bird strike database that’s available to the public. (You can read the bird obituaries here).
While airplane vs. bird is the most common wildlife strike—97 percent of all strikes, according to the FAA—other animals have met their own untimely fates when going up against an plane, including white tail deer, coyotes, bats, and perplexingly turtles, skunks, and alligators. In short, the FAA is on top of the wildlife threat, as are the pilots and the aeronautical engineers who design the planes. Basically—most of the time—the only real