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Anatomy of a Bird Strike

Eastern Meadow Lark  recovered from an aircraft strike on 8 July 2009

Eastern Meadow Lark recovered from an aircraft strike on 8 July 2009

BARNES AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Massachusetts -- Aircraft bird strikes are a constant threat to aircraft. This is a well known and documented fact, not only at Barnes Air National Guard Base, but throughout the United States Air Force, and at airports throughout the world. 

Bird strikes have caused minor and major incidences since 1905, dating back to notes of bird strikes in the Wright Brothers diaries. "Orville ... flew 4,751 meters in 4 minutes 45 seconds, four complete circles. Twice passed over a fence into Beard's cornfield. Chased flock of birds for two rounds, and killed one which fell on top of the upper surface and after a time, fell off when swinging a sharp curve." 

According to the Bird Strike Committee USA, the first person to successfully fly across the continental United States, Calbraith Rodgers, was also the "first to die as a result of a bird strike. On 3 April 1912, Rodgers' Wright Pusher struck a gull, causing the aircraft to crash into the surf at Long Beach, California. Rodgers was pinned under the wreckage and drowned." 

More recently, bird strikes have gained more interest by the general population. That is probably due to the well publicized incident at LaGuardia Airport, when several geese were sucked into an Airbus A320, disabling both engines. Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, pilot of the US Airways Flight 1549, ditched the aircraft into the Hudson River, a heroic decision that resulted in no loss of lives and minimal injuries. (Notably, Sullenberger is a USAF Academy graduate, former fighter pilot, an aviation safety expert, and an accident investigator.) 

As result of that Hudson incident, and due to the fact of increasing incidents of bird strikes nationwide, we can anticipate more inquiries about these incidents and the danger they pose to aircraft, the birds, people/property and the environment. Hopefully, we may also learn more about how to minimize bird strike incidents.
The FAA recently decided to release aircraft bird strike data (see: http://wildlife.pr.erau.edu/public/index.html), as a result of recent increasing inquiries. The insightful database allows users to view statistics by year, state, airport, bird type and more. The data reveals that some airports have higher incidents of strikes than others - higher incidents tending to occur at airports near wetlands or fields. Overall, in 2007, there were about 8,500 bird strikes reported in the United States.
The Air Force Safety Center's most recent data shows that there were almost 4,800 strikes by USAF aircraft in 2007, with one Class A mishap. The fiscal year 2007 cost to the USAF for all incidents combined was over $25 million. 

"At Barnes, we have an average number of bird strikes," said Senior Master Sgt. Tom Dumais, "usually between one and five annually." Recently, on July 8, an Eastern Meadowlark collided with the windshield of a 104th Fighter Wing F-15, during a landing at Barnes Air National Guard Base. "There were about a dozen birds that scattered in front of the plane, but this one couldn't get out of the way," said Maj. David Halasi-Kun, pilot, who estimated his aircraft speed at 160 mph. 

The bird perished, but fortunately there was no damage to the aircraft. "Our biggest concern with a strike is the bird breaking the canopy and incapacitating the pilot, especially in a single seat aircraft. This bird was small...but even a small bird can do significant damage to our engines," said Maj. Halasi-Kun. The bird weighed about eight ounces. The F-15 weighs 31,700 pounds. 

Senior Master Sgt. Dumais, Ground Safety Manager for the 104th Fighter Wing, said that "obviously, larger birds will cause more damage to the aircraft. When we flew the A-10, it seems like we hit more birds, perhaps because we flew lower and slower, but damage at times was minimal. This wasn't the case in September 2005 when one of our A-10 aircraft sustained over $82,000 in damage from a large bird striking the engine cowling."
Dumais said "with the F-15's, we will hopefully see fewer strikes due to the new aircraft being faster but more damage per strike because the aircraft fly faster and the engines have larger more aggressive intakes. With a multimillion dollar engine package in the F-15 the related damage costs can really skyrocket." 

The detailed (unclassified) BASH plan requires daily surveys of the airfield for dead birds and notations in the daily log for sightings. The plan also notes that past bird "strikes to MA ANG aircraft involved Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows, Bank Swallows, Red-tailed Hawks, a Ring-billed Gull, Horned Lark, Golden Plover, and several small passerines." The BASH plans states "the local situation changes throughout the year with migrant birds such as ducks, geese, gulls, shorebirds, raptors, crows, doves, swallows, starlings, and blackbirds posing the most potential problems during both migration periods and resident species causing hazards throughout the year." 

"When one of our jets strikes a bird, there's a formal process that we follow," explains Senior Master Sgt. Dumais. "First, of course, we assess the damage to the aircraft. Then we capture whatever we can for bird remains, submit reports and send the bird remains to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for identification. Even if it's just a blood smear, the Smithsonian can identify the remains." 

The Smithsonian takes DNA from the bird for species identification and records the data for migratory data and research. "We are sometimes tasked with sending the whole bird, which we have to freeze and ship frozen overnight delivery, but most times we are only tasked with sending parts of the bird such as tail feathers, a foot, wing and the head/beak in a Ziploc baggie. This is all to assist in the identification of the bird to help in determining bird avoidance models for future aviators," said Dumais. 

"There are several ways to minimize bird strikes," said John Richardson, Barnes' Base Environmental Coordinator. "The methods range from frightening the birds with noise, to cutting grass and minimizing open water areas. We are considerate of the environment in this way, for example, the Grasshopper Sparrow, a bird not indigenous to this area, has established itself in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As result, Barnes Municipal Airport is required to maintain grass adjacent to the runways and taxiways at certain times of year, for their habitat, so that they can nest and lay eggs. This can cause challenges for the airfield, especially during air shows, but we just work around it for the sake of the environment." 

The BASH plan calls for Barnes to nurture the grassland habitat in the airfield to promote the Grass hopper Sparrow (state threatened), and two other birds including the Upland Sandpiper (state endangered), and Vesper Sparrow (state threatened).
One of the authors of the 104th FW's BASH plan, Dr. Russell P. DeFusco, said that Barnes ANG was the impetus for the FAA CertAlert 06-07, an advisory to provide guidance on "responding to requests by state wildlife agencies to facilitate and encourage habitats for state-listed 'threatened' and 'endangered species' or 'species of special concern' that occur on airports and may pose a threat to aviation safety." Essentially, the advisory said that "airport operators should exercise great caution in adopting new management techniques; new techniques may increase wildlife hazards and be inconsistent with safe airport operations. Managing the on-airport environment to facilitate or encourage the presence of hazardous wildlife species can create conditions that are incompatible with, or pose a threat to, aviation safety."

"Some states have required the development of habitats which were not naturally occurring, which promote wildlife species near airfields, hence creating more of a hazard in the long run," said Dr. DeFusco. "I am a huge advocate of wildlife protection, but creating more hazards for them, and for people and aircraft, is asinine," said DeFusco. 

Owner of BASH, Inc., Dr. DeFusco is well qualified to speak on the subject, with a B.S. in Biology from the USAF Academy; an M.S.in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University, and a Ph.D. in Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology from the University of Colorado, Boulder. His company "specializes in Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard abatement for civil and military flight safety." He wrote the BASH Plan for Barnes as part of a nationwide contract with the National Guard Bureau through their safety and environmental offices. He has visited virtually all the flying units in the Air National Guard, including Combat Readiness Training Centers and several ranges. BASH, Inc was, in part, chosen for the BASH contract because of their long-term experience and Dr. DeFusco was formerly the Chief of the Air Force's BASH Team before retiring from active duty.

"The bottom line is that birds DO cause a significant threat to safety. We are doing what we can to minimize damage, while contributing to research and being respectful of the environment," said Senior Master Sgt. Dumais. "If we can effectively capture data and assist in determining bird habits, we can help reduce future mishaps."