Las Vegas Sun

September 27, 2021

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Birds and airplanes

Risk of a bird strike may be greater than the Federal Aviation Administration admits

In January a crippled US Airways jet made a dramatic landing on New York’s icy Hudson River, capturing the nation’s attention. The plane had run into a flock of geese, and its engines were disabled.

After the incident, USA Today asked the Federal Aviation Administration for information about such bird strikes. FAA officials initially refused to give the newspaper information from its database. The agency argued that the information could be misinterpreted, but eventually relented.

The newspaper found that during the 1990s there were an average of 323 airplane collisions with geese and other birds large enough to disable an engine, according to the FAA. From 2000 to 2007, the average was 524 a year, a 62 percent increase.

The FAA downplayed the increase, noting the rarity of such incidents. In 2007 there were 550 large bird strikes out of 58 million flights. Nonetheless, of those bird strikes, 190 caused damage and 15 harmed an engine.

The real risk is unclear because the FAA’s statistics are incomplete. The agency estimates its numbers account for only about 20 percent of the actual bird strikes every year because airports and airlines are not required to report bird strikes. The agency has refused past requests to make reporting mandatory.

Richard Dolbeer, a retired Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist who created the FAA database in 1990, said the numbers the FAA released raise concerns. He and other wildlife experts have been raising warnings about bird strikes.

Federal standards don’t require most jet engines to withstand an impact from a bird weighing more than four pounds, and Dolbeer said populations of large birds, including geese, cormorants and pelicans, are growing and pose increasing threats to airplanes.

The FAA should take this threat more seriously. It should mandate the reporting of bird strikes to get a full understanding of the problem, and the agency should make a major push to minimize the risk of potentially fatal accidents.

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