Bird strike that brought down Sully is rare, and that's no accident
© Getty Images

The recently released Hollywood biopic "Sully" features the story of airline captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and his role in the Miracle on the Hudson. In the film (and in real life), the crew of US Airways Flight 1549 skillfully handled the unusual emergency situation after a flock of Canada geese disabled both of the plane's engines.

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As the world witnessed on Jan. 15, 2009, and now on the big screen, bird strikes can be a real threat to aviation. As the frontline eyes and ears of airports, professional airline pilots play a vital role in assisting individual airport authorities in evaluating and improving a myriad of safety projects, including wildlife hazard mitigation programs. That is why the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) developed its Airport Safety Liaison (ASL) program, so that pilot volunteers can work with airport partners on real solutions to important issues that affect their local airports.

While the movie may be recent, the history of bird strikes dates back to the dawn of air travel, when Orville Wright claimed to have hit one during flight testing in 1905. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cites that in 2014, there were 13,700 reported incidents of aircraft colliding with wildlife — 97 percent of which involved birds. And of those, about 92 percent occurred below 3,500 feet above the ground, most likely when an airliner is taking off or landing.

Bodies of water, certain kinds of grass and other land features can attract birds, and ALPA ASLs discuss these and other issues with airport authorities, along with using deterrents — including the use of pyrotechnics, bird distress-call recordings, propane cannons, and pesticides or poisons to control the insects and rodents that attract birds — to discourage and manage their habitation near airports. 

In 2009, a waste transfer station was scheduled to be constructed near New York's LaGuardia Airport, directly on the approach path of one of its runways. As landfills and other waste disposal sites are scientifically proven to attract large numbers of birds if they're not properly managed, our local ASL representative identified the potential hazards of its proposed placement. We raised concerns to government regulators that throughout the facility's construction, garbage should be processed in air-pressurized containment devices to prevent odors from leaking into the nearby environment, amongst other mitigations. And while the station's construction was finished about two years ago, we continue to visit the facility to ensure that it maintains the bird-repellant standards promised during the planning stages.

While the focus of mitigation strategies relies on monitoring and controlling birds at and around airports, that's not the only thing being done. Knowing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, researchers and industry have gone to great lengths to better understand bird characteristics and behavioral patterns as a means to keep them away from airports. ALPA works closely with airlines, airports and various government agencies as part of the Bird Strike Committee USA Steering Committee, which has created a clearinghouse of bird and wildlife strike data that is analyzed to promote the development of new mitigation technologies.

In addition, we have advocated for aircraft and engine enhancements, like ensuring aircraft can withstand the impact of an eight-pound bird while flying at cruise speed at sea level, and that engines can withstand a four- to eight-pound bird at 200 knots while operating at 100 percent, like they would be on takeoff.

The main plot line from "Sully" is that a well-trained flight crew is the single most important safety feature of airline operations. Professional airline pilots are prepared for every situation they encounter on the ground and in flight, including bird strikes.

The reason we remember the Miracle on the Hudson is because it is so rare an occurrence. That is because the work of pilots extends beyond the skills demonstrated in the cockpit. A pilot's safety work never ends. And while bird-strike risks will likely never fully disappear, we at ALPA are working tirelessly to manage the hazard through prevention, engineering and training.

Jangelis is the aviation safety vice chairman and chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, International's (ALPA) Airport and Ground Environment Group. An active airline pilot, he currently flies Boeing 717s based at New York's LaGuardia Airport.


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