What a Birdstrike does to a Jet Engine

Danish aviation authorities recently released their findings for a serious birdstrike incident, in Copenhagen. They report that, on July 23, 2013, an SAS Boeing 737 departure ingested a Common Shelduck into the left engine, at 800 feet altitude. The engine began to vibrate and the crew immediately returned for an emergency landing. [article]

Here is a photo showing the damage done to the titanium fan blades:

Just as with the USAirways Flight #1549 birdstrike in January 2009, there were no fatalities. But, had flight conditions been just slightly different, both incidents could have been much worse.

It is important to recognize that no amount of effort spent slaughtering birds in the immediate vicinity of airports will prevent birdstrikes such as this. In both cases, the impacts involved the failure of the flight crews to avoid impacting migratory birds transitioning through at altitude. Obviously, we cannot exterminate species of migratory birds just so they do not endanger aviation. So, to manage these risks, we need smarter management of airports, which must include more balance and a more global plan for the entire airspace system.

How Do We Reduce this Safety Risk?

Half of the problem is the existance of the birds and their habit of migratory flying. The other half of the problem is the aircraft. Fortunately, the birds tend to do their flying in large flocks, increasing their visibility.  But, if the intensity of commercial flight activity is so high that the pilot is limited in his/her ability to detect the bird threat and alter course to avoid the bird threat, these birdstrikes are going to increase in frequency. There is a clear ‘diseconomy of scale’, so far as aviation safety is concerned.

A key part of the solution is to manage airport growth, for which we depend on the aviation regulators. Unfortunately, FAA and other regulators are making no progress, because history shows their real focus is too slanted toward growing aviation activity and supporting commercial aviation. In other words, FAA’s lack of vision and regulatory discipline is causing problems to expand and making more work for FAA to keep busy going nowhere. A classic example of failure by an over-matured, self-serving bureaucracy.

Wholesale Slaughter of Wildlife Near Airports: is there a better way?

A news article in the Star-Ledger details the ineffectiveness of wildlife control measures at the Newark and other New Jersey airports managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). Specifically, after the USAir bird-strike crash in the Hudson in 2009, roughly 6,000 birds have been killed, yet the data shows no improvement in the number of birdstrikes.

In at least one regard, the increased effort to kill wildlife should not be expected to reduce incidents like USAir 1549. Why not? Because Captain Sullenberger’s successful ditching onto shallow river waters had nothing to do with on-airport wildlife. This accident was caused when Sully’s Airbus collided with a flock of geese far from the airport. The NTSB report stated: “…According to FDR data, the bird encounter occurred when the airplane was at an altitude of 2,818 feet above ground level (agl) and a distance of about 4.5 miles north-northwest of the approach end of runway 22 at LGA (the departure point).”

Just as interesting as the article are the comments. It appears that, after the USAir 1549 accident, the primary reaction by FAA and airport authorities was to go high-profile on bird control. Funds were directed toward more wildlife staff on board, and toward the increased use of USDA Wildlife Services personnel at airports. A footnote within a USDA-APHIS-WS annual report on managing wildlife hazards at airports reads: “WS biologists estimated that technical or direct management assistance resulted in a reduction, suppression, or prevention of hazards from target wildlife at 409 airports in 2002, 441 airports in 2003, 479 airports in 2004, 483 in 2005, 518 in 2006, 548 in 2007, 582 in 2008, 602 in 2009, 568 in 2010, 546 in 2011, and 568 in 2012.” It is far too common for agencies with fading missions or funding difficulties to ‘collaborate’ with other agencies, and create work. In this case, likely, FAA directed more aviation revenues to stir up more work for USDA-APHIS-WS, whose jobs have become increasingly ‘endangered’ by funding reductions.

Is there a better way?

Within the Star-Ledger article comments, it is noted that there are much better solutions available, and these are actually successfully used elsewhere. For example, the use of border collies: birds hate predators, so a dog and trainer can make the airport area ‘hostile’ for birds, and they will tend to stay away. A study [PDF]  discusses successful border collie uses in Florida [KRSW] and in Delaware [KDOV].

Another control method, being successfully utilized in the Okanagan valley of southern British Columbia, is egg addling — goose populations are being controlled by simply tracking and invading goose nests during key periods of the year. A page at okanagangooseplan.com notes: “…egg addling involves shaking eggs or coating them with non-toxic biodegradable food-grade corn oil within 14 days of incubation to make them non-viable … the U.S. Humane Society supports this egg addling technique.” Seems like a sad waste of a goose, but a slightly more palatable way to target our commercial instinct for slaughtering wildlife.