Bird strike warning! What manufacturers and airports do to combat the problem

Esther Nestle
3 pictures
5 minutes

When birds fly into turbines, there is always a danger that they paralyze the entire plane. It’s happened before.

New York, January 15th, 2009. The US Airways flight 1549, A320 takes off from LaGuardia Airport (New York City), fully occupied, with 150 people on board. At 850 meters altitude, a collision occurs. A flock of wild geese collides with both engines, which fail immediately. Without thrust, the pilot does not have much time. He has to act fast. He chooses the high-risk tactic of ditching the traffic machine into the icy Hudson River. When the air traffic controllers at the tower hear of the decision, they are speechless. Without an engine, the machine drops frighteningly fast. A few seconds before impact, the cockpit warning comes: “This is the captain talking. Prepare for an impact”.

The pilot must now keep the aircraft’s nose afloat at all costs, until the very last moment. If he does not succeed, the machine risks ramming into the river floor. To do this, he has to balance the wings perfectly. If he can’t do that, the machine will roll over.

Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger manages the miracle: He manoeuvres the plane expertly and lands the A320 safely on the river. In one of the most spectacular landings in history, everyone escapes unharmed.

In 2016, this story landed as a feature film in the cinemas:

The Achilles heel of aviation

Bird strikes endanger the lives of flight passengers and crew, and planes are especially vulnerable during take-off and landing. A passenger or cargo plane will always stand up to a single bird: it won’t  crash. But nevertheless, “a pigeon is enough to cause damage in the engine,” says landscape ecologist and bird strike expert Richard Klauß (*). Damages “can go quickly into the six-figure range.”

It gets really dangerous if very large poultry such as pelicans or lesser spotted eagles or even whole flocks of birds get too close to the engine. They get sucked in by the turbines and become entangled. In the worst case scenario, as happened in New York,  both engines can fail.

In addition to the engines, cockpit disks and the first row of blades in the engines are at risk. Nevertheless, alarmism is out of place. The risk of a serious accident is low. To minimize risk, both aircraft manufacturers and airport operators are working hard.

Bird strike simulation as a stability test

Of course, all those responsible are aware of the dangers. International regulation for aerospace manufacturers stipulates that engines, cockpit disks and aircraft noses must be tested for stability during production. Aircraft manufacturers have to simulate bird strikes. One way of testing is to use “chicken cannons” where masses of dead chickens are fired at engines and windshields.

How airports prevent bird strikes

At German airports, the Aviation Prevention Committee is responsible for minimizing the risk of accidents as much as possible. For example, laser pointers are used to pester birds. In persistent cases, the birds are attacked with alarm pistols and, where necessary, gas cannons are ignited by remote control.

These short-term emergency measures are accompanied by a series of permanent measures designed to make birds as uncomfortable as possible near the airport:

Poultry is not wanted here

(*) Source:

by Esther Nestle

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