Attrition: Death by Bird

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April 21, 2007: A recent incident involving Air Force Two, carrying the U.S. vice president, and with a bird in the engine,is a stark reminder that even peacetime flying has its risks. In this case, one of the engines ingested a bird, as the aircraft was landing in Chicago. The plane was able to land safely, but Air Force Two is just the highest-profile airplane that has met up with one of most common, and unrecognized, hazards encountered during peacetime military operations.

How bad a problem are bird strikes? It varies, depending on what the aircraft is doing. In some cases, aircraft are flying at high speed - and the resulting impact alone can cause a lot of damage. The extent of the problem is huge. In 2006, over 5,000 bird strikes were reported by the United States Air Force, while civilian aircraft usually report 140-50 percent more. That's a lot of incidents.

In most cases, these collisions do not cause crashes, because pilots are able to recover due to multiple engines, sufficient altitude, and location of the impact. For instance, a multi-engine transport like Air Force Two is more likely to survive a bird strike than a single-engine fighter like the MiG-21 or F-16 (both of which have been brought down by bird strikes in recent years). Slower moving aircraft, lower the force of the impact. Additional engines can take up the slack. Moreover, transports rarely make hard maneuvers that can leave a pilot with no room to recover from the unexpected.

Even then, a rundown of incidents over the years shows there is little guarantee that there will be no harm. This list of incidents includes the loss of an E-3 AWACS and all 24 crew on board in 1995, when it hit a flock of birds on takeoff from a base in Alaska. Another strike in 1987 destroyed one of the early B-1B bombers - killing three of the six crew on board. In October, 2004, a C-5B suffered damage to two engines when it encountered a flock of birds. In 2003, the United States Air Force lost two F-16Cs to bird strikes. The Navy and Marines are not immune, either. Since 1980, they have lost 25 aircraft, with two pilots killed, from an average of 740 bird strikes a year.

Dealing with the birds can be a tough issue, due to the fact that in some cases, laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, limit how many can be killed. Often, non-lethal systems are used to keep the birds away from airfields, and the runways in particular. Bird strikes are particularly dangerous during takeoffs. In many cases, a zero-tolerance approach is taken towards the presence of large waterfowl near airfields and airports. This might be hard on the geese, but due to the fact that bird strikes tend to involve more than just feathers flying, it is necessary. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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