The bald eagle that flashed by- just off my right wingtip- was absolutely the last thing on my lengthy checklist of things to watch for flying out of Lakeland Linder Regional (LAL) on the third day of this year’s Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In. My mind focused on watching the orange-vested ground controllers- arriving traffic- departing traffic- overhead traffic- the seaplanes coming back from the annual Sea Plane Splash…not one of our nation’s mascots.

Dave Higdon  |  01st July 2009
Back to Articles
Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

Read More

Bird Strikes:
A dice-roll- with Mother Nature as the house.

The bald eagle that flashed by- just off my right wingtip- was absolutely the last thing on my lengthy checklist of things to watch for flying out of Lakeland Linder Regional (LAL) on the third day of this year’s Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In. My mind focused on watching the orange-vested ground controllers- arriving traffic- departing traffic- overhead traffic- the seaplanes coming back from the annual Sea Plane Splash…not one of our nation’s mascots.

After all- the airspace over and around Lakeland Linder Regional Airport already qualified as a high-traffic area. Almost halfway through the 35th Annual Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In LAL already boasted several thousand aircraft on the field. And arrivals continued to stream in from nearby Lake Parker under the Special Procedures NOTAM (Notice to Airman) dictating the five distinct operating areas and four overlapping- concurrently operating traffic patterns.

Parker- as it’s called- anchors the main arrival system; another arrival exists for Warbirds and demonstration flights- of which we were one. And there exist two lower- tighter patterns established- one for the light-sport/light experimental aircraft flying from an on-the-ground grass strip called ‘Paradise City-’ the other for the helicopters and auto-gyro machines at the southeast corner of the airport in an area called ‘Chopper Town.’

Throw in the showcase planes flying between the crowd and Runway 27L- and the saturation gave me doubts about being in that airspace flying a high-performance single to check out its avionics of all things. What smart eagle would choose to fly here- let alone come cruising through at about 200 feet and against the runway flow?

We used 27L to leave; our bald eagle flew a 090 heading. Meeting would have been unhappy for both of us anywhere; right here- could prove worse for everyone. Unfortunately- the skies are going to the birds- if words from the FAA and wildlife biologists are accurate.

You’ll all have heard about US 1549... Worldwide- people stopped and stared at screens showing the Airbus floating down the Hudson River- its 155 passengers and crew emerging from the emergency exits- standing on wings and rafts as ferryboats arrived to pluck them all to safety.

The accident made heroes of the two cockpit crew members and the three cabin attendants who helped professionally and calmly handle the emergency so that all survived the splashdown. Within the pilot population in my acquaintance- there’s not one of us who hasn’t soaked up all the video and investigative info on this accident.

A compendium of compounded coincidences- this one will forever stand out because of the extreme rarity of every element of the story. The downing of a large aircraft because of bird strikes was unprecedented – particularly from the perspective that everyone survived.

But as revealed by the spotlight shown on the issue of aircraft bird strikes- such incidents themselves are not rare at all. This raises questions: What is being done to mitigate the threat? What can flight crews do to protect themselves and their planes? What should passengers know to be able to participate in their own survival efforts should the worst happen? First- let’s look at the state of the problem – then we’ll look at each of the above questions and the roles of pilots and passengers should a bird strike occur.

Bird strikes seem to be on the rise – and they’re sending down planes in the process- as we saw with Flight 1549. According to recently released information from the FAA- since the year 2000- collisions have doubled between birds- other wildlife and airplanes at our 13 busiest airports.

As of this writing in Fiscal Year 2009- about 8-000 bird strikes have been reported to the FAA. And agency staff believes that number represents only one-fifth of the actual total- since there’s no requirement to report bird strikes that don’t precipitate a reportable incident – such as the US Airways Airbus A320 downing by a flock of Canada geese. Legislation to make reporting mandatory has been introduced into Congress- though its future is a long way from resolution.

Meanwhile- thanks to the success of environmental and wildlife-protection efforts- the population of large migratory birds continues to grow steadily. And some of the passive efforts to help birds exercise their own “see-and-avoid” techniques seem to have come up short. Among those ideas- corkscrew patterns on the fan spinners of turbine engines- colored- pulsing lights- and even turning on the jet’s airborne weather radar – the idea being that the birds will avoid the radiation. Many more-effective methods are employed locally- by the airport operators.

Business aircraft users may at some point hear what sounds a lot like gunfire coming from a remote corner of a busy airport as they wait or work at the FBO. Some may even recall seeing airport workers head out across the grassy areas with a shotgun in hand.

The really fortunate may have seen a falconer working a hunting bird that flies around the airport property in something like a top-cover threat to any birds that might take flight. These are among the efforts employed around the US as airport authorities try to discourage nesting or grazing by birds inside the airport fence.

In other parts of the country- the airports work to prevent construction of holding ponds or any other man-made wetland feature within five- or perhaps even 10 miles of busy airports- lest they attract flocks of large waterfowl or attract migrants every spring and fall.

The FAA regulations even restrict the construction of landfills because of their propensity for attracting large flocks of birds of all sizes- from little finches and sparrows up through gulls and crows – birds large enough to pose a threat to an aircraft in-flight.

Unfortunately- with each state controlling its land-use policies and programs- no single method seems to hold favor.

Lately- some new forms of radar have gained favor as a reliable method for identifying flocks of large birds so that controllers can guide aircraft away from those hazards. The products vary- and some airports are investing; other airport operators continue to wait for the FAA to certify a system before making such an investment.

Other parts of the government decided to move ahead- however- with NASA and the U.S. Air Force investing in at least one of these systems. For NASA- protecting its space launches and shuttle recoveries gets help from such a radar system. Thankfully- birds seem as anxious to avoid a collision as the pilots facing the threat; unfortunately- not all the birds see or react quickly enough all the time – that’s how we got the US Airways splashdown.

Meanwhile- though- eyeballs remain the pilot’s best avoidance tool – though that system- too- is getting some high-tech help.

After the close encounter with the bald eagle earlier that day- my mind was primed to watch for the dual threats of traffic not squawking – and thus not visible to the onboard anti-collision system – and birds- who may have been squawking in their own way- but still weren’t registering on the CAS display.

During that demonstration of an avionics system- one of the more-interesting functions available was a display from a daylight- useable Enhanced Vision System sensor. By keeping eyeballs moving between the EVS display and the world outside- I was able to spot both larger birds and airplanes also not visible on the collision-avoidance system. They showed up as bright spots of different sizes- moving at dramatically different speeds- on the grayscale display of the world supplied by the Infrared Sensor.

For a flight crew transiting an airport near large bodies of water- cattle yards- farm fields- grain elevators or agricultural-products processing plants – all areas known to attract large birds in large numbers – the possibility of seeing the avian creatures via infrared imagery should be one to explore in aircraft so equipped. But one thing we know from experience – ducking in the cockpit does nothing to change the collision potential.

That means a flying pilot needs to be prepared to maneuver quickly and dramatically should the threat of impacting large birds appear imminent – like following a TCAS resolution- by turning up and away from a descending bird- for example.

Those of us who may find ourselves in the cabin occasionally may hear a bird strike at about the same time the flight crew hears the impact. But in most business jets- with engines mounted far aft on the fuselage- the pilots can’t see their own engines without leaving the flight deck; ditto for the swept wings on many jets – and taking a walk from the flight deck may not be the option the captain wants to exercise at the start of what could be an emergency.

If you hear bumps or sounds of impact- look out the windows; look for feathers- blood streaks or bird parts and for damage to the wing leading edges and the engine inlets. Make note of any fluid you see leaking from anywhere; and then ring the flight deck on the intercom.

Should the flight crew decide on an emergency landing or ditching off the airport- you can take some steps to prepare yourself for riding out the arrival and getting out of the airplane.

• If available- consider taking an aft-facing seat to better ride out any impact; quickly read instructions for operating the emergency hatches or aircraft door – some thing the crew should brief you on before every flight.

• Make sure anything loose and/or heavy is stored where it won’t become a missile inside the cabin on impact.

• Follow any crew instructions and be ready to get yourself out of the aircraft as soon as it stops moving.

• Always check outside a door or hatch before opening to make sure you’re not opening onto a fire- or where you might let water flood into- and sink- the aircraft prematurely.

• Be prepared for the possibility that one exit may not work as expected- so you can be ready to head to an alternative way out – and don’t forget- that best alternative may be an escape hatch in the cockpit- so pay attention to your crews’ instructions.

• Finally- as you head for the exit- resist any temptation to pack up and haul out your briefcase- suitcase or other gear; unless it fits into a pocket- leave it behind – someone will get your possessions back to you later. First you’ve got to live – which means primarily you need to focus on getting yourself out.

The chances are extremely small that any given business aircraft passenger ever will find themselves in the same position as one of the 155 souls aboard US Airways 1549. But the fact that it’s happened before – with less favorable outcomes – should focus your mind on what you’d do should the odds break against you.

In fact- business aircraft passengers should spend a few minutes at the start of every flight becoming familiar with the same emergency exists and procedures we hear about on the commercial carriers.

Many of the survivors of the so-called ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ credited their attention to such details for the calm and order shown by those passengers as they evacuated the Airbus. Such testimonials should drive home the fact that being prepared is merely being smart for yourself.

A slight flick of the control stick helped me avoid a physical encounter with a bald eagle – but a second later or a few feet different and my next maneuver could have been an emergency landing.

Regardless of how infrequent or how small the chance- you need only one encounter with birds- impossible weather or an actual-but-rare aircraft malfunction to appreciate the benefits of preparedness. It’s not just for the birds.


Beechcraft King Air 350i 1
Beechcraft King Air 350i
Make offer
United States
Airbus/Eurocopter AS 350B-2 1
Airbus/Eurocopter AS 350B-2
Price: USD $750,000
Piper Archer II 1
Piper Archer II
Price: £55,000No VAT
United Kingdom - England
Piper Meridian 1
Piper Meridian
Make offer
United States - TX
loder image