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How dangerous are birdstrikes? A pilot explains

by Steve Landells Flight Safety Specialist

The film Sully: A Miracle on the Hudson, which premieres in the UK today, is based on a real-life event where a plane came into contact with a flock of Canada geese shortly after take-off.  The incident caused all engines to fail, forcing Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger to make the tough decision to make the emergency landing on the Hudson river in New York. But just how common are birdstrikes, and how dangerous are they? As a former airline pilot, I not only have personal experience of birdstrikes but also through my role as BALPA’s Flight Safety Specialist I have seen the effects, large and small, that birdstrikes have on an aircraft.

Bird strikes are a fairly common occurrence but are rarely dangerous. Aircraft are designed and built to withstand bird strikes and pilots undergo rigorous training to enable them to deal with eventualities like a bird strike. In my flying career, I experienced 10 birdstrikes, none of which caused any significant damage. When a bird goes in to an engine, the energy within the engine usually means the bird disintegrates.

There can, in a serious incident be extensive damage to the engine, but losing one engine is very unlikely to cause an aircraft to crash because they are designed to fly with one engine down, and pilots are regularly tested in the simulator to prove they are able to fly their aircraft following an engine failure. However multiple bird strikes, or hitting large birds such as Canada geese can, and have, caused serious accidents, such as in the case of Captain Sully.

The decision-making processes that Captain Sullenberger and his First Officer, Jeff Skiles, went through that day were the result of years of training and a thorough understanding of the aircraft they were flying. Professional pilots make important, life-saving decisions every day but fortunately most of us never find ourselves in such extreme circumstances and the fact that there was no loss of life is testament to the skill and judgement of the pilots that day.

So, what do airlines and airports do to ensure birdstrikes are avoided?

Around the world there are lots of measures being taken to keep birds and aircraft apart. Tactics include introducing bird scaring around airports, for example by playing distress calls, firing flares, and even the controlled use of birds of prey. Pilots will usually have the aircraft lights on at lower levels and some believe that this will make the aircraft more visible to the birds which will, hopefully, encourage them to fly out of the way. Flying at lower speeds in areas where birds are common also reduces the damage if a collision does occur

However, while extensive research in to the effects of a birdstrikes on aircraft has been undertaken, it seems the emerging threat to aircraft comes in the form of drones. Pilots have been raising concerns about the lack of data on the threat posed by drones and BALPA is supporting the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in their ‘drone code’ campaign and working with partners to enable testing to assess what would happen if a collision should occur.

At the moment, we simply don’t have enough data to fully understand what would happen if a drone was to hit an aircraft. But the concern is that drones, unlike birds, contain components like batteries that could cause some serious damage to a windscreen or engine of an airliner and if one were to hit the blades of a helicopter the consequences could be catastrophic. That’s why we are currently working with the Government and others to conduct in-depth research into the possible consequences of such an event.