Expert: Bird-Airplane Collisions Happen Every Day

Over the last two decades, collisions between birds and aircraft have killed 219 people worldwide, according to the Bird Strike Committee USA. As chair of the committee, which is directed by representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, aviation industry and airports, John Ostrom works to reduce the hazards birds and other wildlife pose to airplanes. Shortly after US Airways Flight 1549 went down into New York's frigid Hudson River on Thursday, Ostrom, manager of airside operations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, spoke with NEWSWEEK about these dangers. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How great a danger do bird strikes pose to commercial aircraft?
John Ostrom:
They can pose a significant threat, depending on the type of bird and what phase of flight that you're in. Bird strikes happen on a regular basis—as a matter of fact they're happening daily all over the world. Obviously not to the extent that we're seeing aircraft falling out of the sky, but bird strikes are a common occurrence.

What do you think happened Thursday to the US Airways plane?
I don't want to speculate about what happened out at LaGuardia [Airport], but birds can cause a variety of problems to aircraft: ingestion, striking of control surfaces.

Can you elaborate? How, exactly, could a bird strike lead to engine failure?
An engine is composed of different layers of fan blades that suck in the air, compress it, heat it up and send it out the back. The fan blades are sucking in the air like a big vacuum cleaner. When a bird hits those blades, it can break them off, shatter them, bend them. When those broken blades go through the engine, they can continue to damage it—which could cause it to shut down or cause the pilot to shut it down. If the pieces stay inside the engine, that's a contained engine failure. If the strike is violent enough, pieces can actually come out the sides of the engines, and that's called an uncontained engine failure.

How can airlines protect their planes from bird strikes?
It's kind of hard once they're up in the air. The majority of the emphasis is placed at the airports. The airports have a duty to provide our users a safe environment. Most of the wildlife management is done at the airport level.

What specific measures are taken?
It's usually an integrated approach where you have habitat modification—changing the environment of the airport so that birds aren't attracted to it. And you have exclusion, which is preventing wildlife of any kind from getting to or using your airport, anything from fencing to perching wire.

Are some airports more dangerous than others in this regard?
I can't speak to that. It depends what species they have in the area. Different species pose different threats and it depends what an airport has for a control program in place.

What type of bird is the most dangerous or frequent culprit?
Large birds or large flocks of birds pose a more significant threat than smaller, individual birds. It all depends, at each airport, what birds you have. If you've got Canada geese and blackbirds, you have to decide what's worse. They're all hazardous, but they all pose a different set of risks.

What percentage of bird strikes lead to fatalities?
Since 1988, 219 people have been killed worldwide as a result of bird strikes. Bird and other wildlife strikes to aircraft annually cause well over $600 million in damage to U.S. civil and military aviation.

Are bird strikes more common in commercial or military planes?
There's a threat to all of them. Anytime you're flying in [the birds'] environment, there's a threat.

Is research being done to diminish the number of these strikes?
There's a lot of research being done to look at a variety of different tools to reduce the hazards. Right now, a lot of research is being done into the use of radar. The FAA is funding some of the research, but some of the other research is being done by private entities.