Why you should not fear airplane bird strikes. A chat with a Frontier Airlines pilot

 While bird strikes can cause considerable damage, you need not fear them. Photo: Mighty Travels/Flickr (Creative Commons)

While bird strikes can cause considerable damage, you need not fear them. Photo: Mighty Travels/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Do fear a bird strike while flying in an airplane?

We know that a double bird strike crippled US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009, forcing the Airbus A320 down in the Hudson River. Without quick thinking from Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, it may have been one of the most deadly domestic aviation disasters in recent history.

But that event was highly unusual. As we learned six years ago, US Airways 1549 had bird strikes in both of its engines, which almost never happens. Usually, birds either hit the fuselage or, at worst, are ingested in one engine. 

I spoke recently with Jim Colburn, a pilot and director of flight operations at Frontier Airlines, about bird strikes. He wanted to assure passengers they should not be worried. He also shared some amusing bird strike stories. 

Here's some of what he said. 

Pilots generally do not fear bird strikes. "It's just like turbulence. [Passengers] think a bird strike brings an airplane down. It's simply not true. That was an extremely rare case in the Hudson. Just like with turbulence, people get scared but you would be amazed what these airplanes can do. ... Bird strikes are almost normal [operations.]"

The biggest danger comes at low altitudes. "5,000 feet from the ground or below, that's where we see the bulk of them."

Even if pilots see the birds, there is not much they can do. "We certainly can't maneuver to miss them. I don't need air show pilots."

His favorite bird strike story. "We were descending into Bismarck, [North Dakota] in a blizzard. We heard this dull thump. We were in the clouds. We couldn't see anything. We thought someone had dropped a briefcase in the cabin. We landed and taxied to the gate. That's when we saw the radome. It was covered in blood and bird feathers."

Pilots don't always know they hit a bird. "There is a post flight walk-around every time. Often, the pilots go out and do the post flight walk-around and they see blood or feathers and they go back up and say, 'we hit a bird.' ... I have taken a bird in the engine and never knew it until I smelled it."

On inspecting the airplane. "At any airline, every month you are going to hit something. 99.9 percent of the time, it doesn't hurt the airplane. You go out and clean it up and maintenance does an inspection on it and you go on. Even if it goes into the engine, most of the time, it's no big deal. It's only a big deal if you take in multiple large birds."

What the birds do. "With most of the bird strikes, you can see them tuck and dive right before they hit. They don't realize the speed and mass that is coming at them. They don't tuck and dive until you are 10-15 feet from them. Then they realize, 'holy crap that's coming right at me.' You have to realize the airplane is doing 150 mph down low. They think it's a predatory bird coming at them. Sometimes we miss them sometimes we don't."

On the chances of another double bird strike, like US Airways 1549. That is so extremely rare. We will never see that again in our lifetimes. [Our biggest concern] is just the cost of the airplane getting taken out of service [for inspection]. One thing that the traveling public doesn't know is that [in training] everything is predicated on a losing an engine as we take off. If we hit a bird and lose an engine the airplane is going to fly just fine. To have a duel flame out like that - that's the only one I have ever heard of."

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