Blue Skies: It’s a bird, hitting a plane

Airplanes are safe. We know this. But as travelers in the age of YouTube, we’re nonetheless exposed to more frightening moments than ever before. Recently one of those moments came in the form of footage from a terrifying British Airways emergency landing last month. Shortly after takeoff, both engines on the Airbus A319-100 issued loud “bangs” and proceeded to bellow smoke; one of them caught fire. A mayday distress call was made, and ultimately the flight was able to land. None of the 75 passengers was seriously injured.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the latches to the two engine bays hadn’t been secured prior to takeoff. The metal cowls that cover the bays reportedly ripped off and ruptured a fuel line. It was a rare occurrence — not nearly as common as what many initially feared had been the cause: bird strike.

Which brings me to this advice: Do not Google “bird strike.” In addition to seeing all manner of gruesome images, you’ll come away convinced that our species is on one long crash course with our winged friends, and it’s only a matter of time before this occasional problem becomes all too common. (And by “occasional” I mean thousands of strikes each year. The federal government has a database on the subject; between 1990 and 2008 it received over 87,000 strike reports. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates this represents just a fifth of all the strikes that actually happened.)

It’s not just that birds are striking our planes. More birds are striking more planes than ever before. The FAA says the number of reported collisions in 2012 was almost twice as many as in 2002, and four times as many as ten years earlier. As USA Today reported, that’s only partly because of increased reporting. Bird flocks are growing, we’re sending more flights into the skies and our planes are getting quieter.

As a somewhat frequent traveler, I was somewhat consoled to read up on the technology that’s sprung up in response to this problem.

Precise Flight, for instance, developed something called Pulselite, which, yes, emits a pulsing light to frighten away birds. The company claims that airlines using the Pulselite have reduced bird strikes by 20 to 30 percent.

The U.S. Air Force, for its part, has developed a system that uses GIS technology to create a Bird Avoidance Model — an online, near-real-time tool for flight planning that analyzes and correlates data on bird habitat, migration and breeding characteristics, plus environmental and man-made geospatial data.

Meanwhile grass management, pyrotechnics and other techniques have all been used at various airports, with promising results. But surely the neatest bird-strike science is happening at the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab, in Washington, D.C. That’s where research assistant Marcy Heacker performs thousands of forensic feather identifications each year. If at this point I’ve got you worked into a lather, I encourage you to lose yourself in this fascinating interview with her. The birds aren’t going away, but sometimes it’s heartening just to know smart people with big microscopes are on the case.

Chris Colin
Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, Slovenian ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe, mysterious scraps of paper and more for the NewYorker.com, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones, the Atavist, Pop-Up Magazine, Afar magazine and more. Email him at [email protected]
Chris Colin
Chris Colin
Tags: Downtime,Tech Culture