BY NOLAN PETERSON As published on Medill Reports
One Canada goose: 10 pounds.
One Airbus A320 jetliner: 172,000 pounds.
Combine the two at 200 miles per hour, and 155 lives are suddenly in need of a miracle in the Hudson.
Last month the FAA announced a revised plan to lower the risk of bird strikes to aircraft through research and wildlife management. This strategy relies on database analysis and predictive models, yet fails to make reporting bird strikes mandatory – a move some experts say will hinder the effectiveness of the program.
“We were lucky with the Hudson ditching, the next one will be a smoking hole in the ground – I just hope there aren’t a lot of people aboard,” said Ed Herricks, professor emeritus of environmental engineering at the University of Illinois, referring to the 2009 incident involving US Airways Flight 1549 in New York.
Low reporting rates
Herricks, who has a Ph.D. in biology, works with the FAA to develop strategies to minimize wildlife interactions with aircraft and improve air safety. He said there are at least 20 bird strikes on U.S. aircraft every day, and likely many more that go unreported.
“Only 30 or 40 percent of bird strikes are reported, and the costs are handled by the airlines and aircraft owners. So the risk is there, but there isn’t any pressure on the FAA to do anything – responsibility has largely been relegated to the airports,” Herricks said.
Aaron Spencer, a wildlife biologist for the USDA at Chicago O’Hare, said that bird strikes are a constant worry.
“We always have bird strikes,” Spencer said. “It’s a really big issue here, there’s no down time as far as wildlife goes.”
According to the FAA bird strike database, there have been 149 reported bird strikes at O’Hare in the last year. Three of the strikes were listed as having caused substantial damage.
The FAA’s bird strike database archived more than 29,500 civilian aircraft strikes in the U.S. in the last three years. This number represents a fraction of the bird strikes that actually occur. A 2009 FAA study estimated that 39 percent of bird strikes are actually reported, while a 2010 Department of Defense study puts the reporting rate at only 20 percent.
Despite the low reporting rates, the FAA concluded in its most recent bird strike prevention plan released on April 25, that reporting bird strikes does not need to be mandatory.
“The current level of reporting is statistically valid and is sufficient for the FAA to develop national trends and mitigation policies, making mandatory reporting unnecessary,” the FAA report said.
Herricks said there was more to the FAA’s decision than statistics.
“Yes, I do think bird strike reporting should be mandatory, but I don’t know how you enforce it,” Herricks said. “That’s probably a significant part of the FAA’s decision – why put something out there that people will ignore? That sets a bad precedent.”
There is no incentive for an airline to report bird strikes in a voluntary system, Herricks said, because more vigilant reporting may have a negative impact on an airline’s bottom line.
“An airline that more actively reports its strikes could end up with ink on its face, and it might seem like they’re striking more birds than an airline that doesn’t report,” Herricks said.
NTSB recommendations disregarded
The FAA’s decision to not make bird strike reporting mandatory goes against recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board dating back to 1999.
In 1999 the NTSB published a safety recommendation following two bird strike events on passenger jets that resulted in severe damage to the aircraft. The report urged the FAA to make bird strike reporting mandatory.
“The voluntary reporting system has not resulted in the provision of adequate data on bird strike hazards, and this has hindered the proper evaluation of the problem and implementation of safety improvements,” the NTSB recommendation said.
Following the fatal 2008 crash of a Cessna Citation business jet following a bird-strike, the NTSB published an accident report with recommendations to the FAA, including: “Require all airports and aircraft operators to report all wildlife strikes, including, if possible, species identification, to the Federal Aviation Administration National Wildlife Strike Database.”
The FAA response to the 2009 NTSB recommendation said, “We believe the current level of reporting of 39 percent is statistically valid and sufficient to analyze trends and develop national mitigation policies.”
In a document released to Medill Reports, the NTSB said, “In recent decades, the Safety Board has issued dozens of safety recommendations related to bird strikes. […] Of those, Safety Recommendation A-99-091 requested that the FAA ‘require all airplane operators to report bird strikes to the FAA.’”
Herricks said the FAA chose not to adopt the NTSB’s recommendations because of logistical difficulties.
“I think the FAA’s reluctance to make reporting mandatory is more a matter of bureaucracy, and not necessarily for nefarious reasons,” Herricks said. “And when I say it’s bureaucracy, I mean there are issues of practicality – this would be exceptionally expensive to enforce.”
Despite pushback from the FAA, the NTSB continues to believe mandatory bird strike reporting could improve air safety.
According to the NTSB, “The FAA chose not to adopt the recommendation; however, the Board continues to believe that mandatory reporting of all wildlife strikes would allow a more complete and accurate assessment of the wildlife strike problem and would enhance mitigation efforts.”
Efforts to make the bird strike database secret
The debate over mandatory bird strike reporting is not the first time the FAA and NTSB have clashed over issues relating to bird strikes.
Notably, the FAA drew criticism from experts and lawmakers in 2009 when it proposed a federal law to make its national bird strike database off-limits to the public.
The FAA published a notice in 2009 that said the move was intended to protect the data to encourage voluntary reporting. The FAA said the potentially negative impacts on passenger confidence in air safety could affect the bottom lines of airports and airlines.
The move drew criticism from the NTSB and the US Department of Transportation.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood chucked the FAA’s proposal and said the public had a right to the information.
“To keep this information secret when most every other accident type is reported made no sense at all. Secretary LaHood is making the right call to scrap the FAA’s proposal,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement.
In a 2009 letter to the FAA, acting NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said, “The safety board believes that public access to all the data in the FAA Wildlife Strike Database is critical to the analysis and mitigation of the wildlife strike problem, and the board strongly disagrees with the FAA’s proposal to restrict public access to these data.”
Bird strike data essential to air safety
Pilots and air traffic controllers currently rely on three types of tools to anticipate the bird strike threat: Predictive models of bird behavior, airport-specific wildlife management programs, and sensory data such as radar that can provide real-time updates on bird behavior.
Two out these three tools , predictive models and wildlife management, rely on accurate bird strike data to be effective.
The most widely used predictive model is the U.S. Air Force’s Bird Avoidance Model, known as BAM to pilots. BAM is a computer model that is formulated from several pieces of information, including; radar data, weather patterns, bird migration patterns – and bird strike reports.
BAM is used by civilian pilots in the flight planning process to gauge an airport’s bird strike threat. Military pilots will even cancel flights based on BAM warnings.
“When we flight plan we use BAM to get the bird condition at an airport,” said a U.S. Air Force special operations pilot, on condition of anonymity. “If the threat level is too high, we just won’t go there – so yeah, what BAM tells us about the bird threat really affects operations.”
Some experts worry that the predictive models and wildlife management programs used by pilots and airports may be based on incomplete data.
A 2009 NTSB accident report on a fatal bird strike event said, “The low level of participation in voluntary wildlife strike reporting has resulted in data that severely underestimate the number and type of actual wildlife strikes.”
“Such incomplete information could reduce the effectiveness of any efforts to develop information that will assist pilots in developing operational strategies for minimizing the risk and severity of bird strikes,” the report concluded.
According to the Bird Strike Committee USA, a volunteer organization comprising members from the FAA, USDA, Department of Defense and airlines, accurate bird strike reporting is needed to manage wildlife at airports and design aircraft to better handle strikes.
“Bird strike reports provide critical data for biologists, aeronautical engineers, and land-use planners to justify and develop effective programs to reduce damaging bird strikes,” the Bird Strike Committee said on its website.
According to Boeing, bird strike data are used to design aircraft capable of surviving high-speed impacts with birds.
“Bird-strike data, together with knowledge of the operational environment, are utilized by Boeing as a basis of many airplane design features beyond regulatory requirements,” said William S. Reed, a safety pilot for Boeing, in a report.
While the FAA has not endorsed mandatory reporting, the administration has adopted another one of the NTSB’s key recommendations – mandatory wildlife hazard assessments and wildlife hazard plans for all certificated airports.
These programs, however, also depend on accurate bird strike data to be effective.
According to a 2010 DOD report, “By knowing the species of bird involved in a bird strike event, managers can investigate the habitat and food habits of the species and begin the process of reducing, modifying or eliminating the attractants.”
At O’Hare, USDA wildlife management considers reporting bird strikes to be an essential part of managing the threat of strikes to aircraft.
“We hold ourselves to a really high standard here in that if we find a bird on the runway, and even if we can’t attribute it to a specific aircraft, we still report it as a strike because it helps us do our jobs better to know what kinds of animals are being struck out there,” Spencer said.
Bird strike reporting is mandatory in Canada. U.S. Air Force and Naval regulations dating back to 1981 require all bird strikes be reported. The military also requires that the remains of all impacted birds are sent to the Smithsonian Institute for species identification.
Despite the lack of a mandate, the FAA has taken steps to make bird strike reporting easier. Mobile application software was recently created, allowing smart phone users to make additions to the FAA’s online bird strike database with their data device.
Technology has its limits
Wildlife management programs and predictive models are not the only tools available to lessen the bird strike threat.
The FAA also uses radar to monitor the bird strike threat in real-time. The radars currently in use were designed to detect aircraft, but have been modified to monitor bird activity.
“The radars that we currently use at O’Hare were developed to look at large objects in two dimensions – we need technology for looking at small objects in three dimensions,” Herricks said.
New technologies such as thermal imaging and mortar-detection radar developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan are on the horizon but have not yet been integrated into the domestic aviation infrastructure.
“There are lots of technologies that can be reasonably applied,” Herricks said. “What has to be improved is the willingness of the whole aerospace industry to respond and invest in this.”
New technology is being reviewed for use at O’Hare.
Spencer said, “We’re working with the University of Illinois Center for Aviation Excellence and trying to evaluate the use of new types of radars on birds and seeing how well that actually works when you put it in the airfield environment.”
Predictive technologies and real-time updates go hand in hand, Herricks said. The trick is learning how to effectively apply the available tools.
“What really needs to be addressed are procedures to integrate the technology with practice, and we’re just beginning to research how to do that,” Herricks said.
A continuing threat with serious consequences
Since the first recorded bird strike fatality in 1912, birds have been a major concern to pilots.
According to the DOD, bird and other wildlife strikes to U.S. aircraft cause more than $600 million in damage annually. DOD estimates put annual bird strikes costs to the military at $75 million. The Central Science Laboratory, a U.K. research institute, appraises the worldwide cost of bird strikes to airlines at nearly $1.2 billion annually.
These strikes can have more serious consequences — more than 220 people have been killed as a result of bird strikes since 1988.
High passenger loads aboard modern jetliners and the increase in the volume of air traffic have increased both the probability and the consequences of a catastrophic bird strike event.
New airplanes such as the Airbus A380 can hold more than 800 passengers in one class seating arrangements. Advances in technology have made modern aircraft more resistant to bird strike damage, Herricks said, but the threat of a catastrophic event still exists.
“Technologies can lower the risk, but not eliminate it,” Herricks said. “The Hudson crash showed us that, and the outcome could have been very different.”
According to airport data, Chicago O’Hare operates nearly 3,000 daily flights and more than 66 million passengers pass through the airport every year. The high volume of traffic has made bird strikes a worry for wildlife managers.
“We do have bird strikes, and just based on the sheer volume of aircraft we push through this airspace, it’s a really big issue,” Spencer said.
The risk of bird strikes is highest during takeoff, landing and associated phases of flight- usually within airport airspace. Bird strikes are also more likely to occur during spring due to bird migration patterns, and this year has been no exception.
A Delta Air Lines flight to Los Angeles made an emergency landing on April 19 at Kennedy Airport after birds were sucked into the plane’s engine. Five days later, a JetBlue flight had to turn around after two geese hit the aircraft’s windshield.
Planes carrying Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden were both struck by birds on April 19.
No one was hurt.