Monday, April 13, 2009

Caution: Bird Activity

Bird strikes became newsworthy recently with the dramatic ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in January of this year after multiple bird strikes caused both engines to fail. Now the FAA wants to keep the raw data on bird strikes "confidential" (read "secret"). The justification being offered seems tenuous, at best. Here are some quotes from the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which the public may comment on until April 20, 2009.
The Agency is concerned that there is a serious potential that information related to bird strikes will not be submitted because of fear that the disclosure of raw data could unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter.

When it comes to safety issues, knowledge is power, except apparently when that knowledge might scare airline passengers away from particular airports or airlines.
The complexity of the information warrants care with its interpretation; releasing this information without benefit of proper analysis would not only produce an inaccurate perception of the individual airports and airlines but also inaccurate and inappropriate comparisons between airports/airlines.

Apparently our public servants think it's okay to make public some scary data, but other sorts of sorts of scary data must be kept secret; the sort of scary data that might adversely affect commerce. If third parties, including the news media, want to access the raw data to provide their own analysis, I think that's a good thing. The FAA seems to be saying that they, and they alone, know how to interpret raw data which I find unbelievably arrogant. Considering the agency's past performance on a variety of issues (aircraft safety inspections, management of air traffic control, etc.), two things are clear: They think they know best and they have the ability to screw up an anvil.

Whatever you think, you have until April 20 to comment by fax (202–493–2251), or by mail at:

U.S. Department of Transportation
Docket Operations M–30
West Building Ground Floor
Room W12–140
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE.
Washington, DC 20590

You can also comment on-line, though I found it to be a bit complicated. Go to this link and search for docket number FAA-2009-0245.

On the next screen, locate and click on the rules link.

On the next screen, click on the comments link and post your feelings about this proposed rule.

Here's some interpreted data on strikes that has been published to date. According to Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990–2007, the threat of wildlife strikes to aircraft are on the rise due to three factors. First, many wildlife populations have increased and/or have adapted to living in urban areas. Next, there are more aircraft flying - passenger aircraft operations have increased dramatically since 1980. Lastly, more airlines are flying two-engine aircraft as opposed to three or four engine aircraft and fewer engines means less redundancy and less safety.

If you think your odds of hitting a bird or other animal are low, think again. In the 18-year period between 1990 and 2007, over 82,000 animal strikes were reported. Birds accounted for over 97 percent of the encounters, terrestrial mammals for about 2 percent, bats for 0.3 percent, and reptiles for 0.1 percent. Just over half of reported bird strikes occurred between July and October and if you think birds don't fly in the dark, 38 percent of strikes occurred at night. 60 percent of bird strikes occurred at 100 feet above ground or less, 73 percent occurred at 500 feet or less, and 92 percent occurred at or below 3,000 feet. The record altitude for a bird strike? 32,500 feet. 60 percent of the strikes occurred during landing or approach to landing. 37 percent occurred during takeoff and climb-out.

58 percent of terrestrial mammal strikes occurred between July and November. 33 percent of deer strikes occurred between October and November. 64 percent of the terrestrial mammal strikes occurred at night and 89 percent occurred during the takeoff or landing phase.

Now that didn't hurt, did it?

I've had three bird strikes and countless near misses. The first, and most dramatic bird strike happened during a daytime instructional flight at about 400 feet above ground, right after takeoff. The bird was a turkey vulture that I estimate weighed 15 to 18 pounds. The bird hit the leading edge of the right wing, just outboard of the wing strut. The sound of impact was quite loud. I took control of the aircraft, verified all the primary flight controls were functioning, and we returned for landing. After landing we found a three foot portion of the leading edge was significantly deformed, though I didn't notice any change in flight handling or performance after the strike. Our encounter was fairly lucky, for us anyway. Had the turkey vulture struck the windshield, the results would have been much worse. Here's an eagle that collided with a Schweizer helicopter, hitting a passenger in the chest and causing a fractured shoulder.

On several occasions I ferried Caravans to maintenance under a ferry permit after they had been damaged by bird strikes. The Caravan driver's old joke is that if you're going to hit a bird, try to hit a duck or a goose such that you skewer it on one of the two massive pitot masts. That way you can turn the pitot heat on and cook the bird on your way in and have something to eat after you land. Of course, this is just a joke.

If my bird encounters have taught me anything it is to take immediate evasive action anytime I see birds that pose a threat. There is a lot of folklore about how birds can or may get out of your way, when they may dive and when they may climb. Some of this may or may not be true, so the best advice I can offer is don't just sit there and passively expect the birds to get out of your way. If you see birds before or during takeoff, wait or abort the takeoff until the area clears. At a towered airport, tell the tower or ground controller if birds are an issue. Many airports have bird hazing protocols and ground crews may be dispatched to scare the birds away. If you see birds during approach to landing, remember you can always go around. Again, tell the tower about what you've seen since that information can help other pilots who may be following you. Sometimes, like at night, you may not see the birds until it is too late to take any action and you have to hope for the best.

As for terrestrial mammals, I've had my share of near misses with deer, coyotes, foxes, skunks, and stray dogs. Just like birds, you need to take action if you see an animal on or near the runway where you are departing or landing. If you can see the animal, don't assume it will get out of or stay out of your way. When in doubt, aborting a takeoff or executing a go-around is the prudent thing to do.

If you do collide with a bird, remember to report the event after you have safely landed. You can now report these encounters using this on-line form. It's actually a heck of a lot easier to report a bird strike than it is to comment on Notices of Proposed Rulemaking. If you hit a bird and the remains are accessible to you, follow the instructions on the site for sending the remains to the Smithsonian for identification. I've never submitted bird remains. In the case of the turkey vulture collision, the bird fell somewhere into a slough and was "unavailable for comment."


Dave Starr said...

Wow, what a tangled web we weave ... that certainly is a convoluted process to comment online, John, but thanks to your instructions, I made it through and submitted my concerns.

To anyone else reading who has not yet commented, this is hardly a pilot-only issue. Safety-related information is the right of all citizens, if you don't wish to live your life in artificial blindness, do take the time to comment.

JimmyMeBoy said...

I know one lad in CT who saw a deer on the runway when he was on short final. The deer was somewhere around the numbers so it wasn't going to be an issue because this guy was set up to land well down the runway. What he didn't factor in was that the deer could run as fast as his Stinson flies and to make a long story short he landed on top of the deer - the deer bolted when he over flew it. He hit the deer's neck with the prop and landed 'without further incident'. A fire engine was required to hose the blood off the runway and remove the remains.

When arriving at airports with deer problems it's a good idea to make a low pass down the runway if you're the only guy around, especially in the morning or evening when it could have been a long time since the last aircraft used the runway. Deer tend to be poor decision makers when it comes to the timing and direction of their bolting. They like to wait until the last second to jump out in front of you. So a low pass to make some noise and flush out any lurkers can be a good idea.

What I was not aware of is that you also need to be vigilant for deer while on approach and while climbing out. I imagine these encounters are limited to the species of deer that Santa uses. See Pg 36 (7/12):

Dave Starr said...

I recently saw an announcement that indicates the FAA is scrapping the misguided security classification. I was surprised to note that only 75 other folks voiced their opinion ... for or against ... an excellent example of the power of democracy, or an object lesson in how little the aviation community cares?