WASHINGTON – Reports of airplanes hitting birds and other wildlife surged last year, including serious accidents such as birds crashing through cockpits and crippling engines in flight, according to an Associated Press analysis of new government data. More than a dozen states across two migration routes from Minnesota to Texas have seen the highest increases.
"Birds and planes are fighting for airspace, and it's getting increasingly crowded," said Richard Dolbeer, an expert on bird-plane collisions who is advising the Federal Aviation Administration and the Agriculture Department.
The government's tally for all bird strikes last year could reach or even exceed 10,000 for the first time — which would represent about 27 strikes every day. There were at least 57 cases in the first seven months of 2009 that caused serious damage and three in which planes and a corporate helicopter were destroyed by birds. At least eight people died, and six more were hurt.
The destroyed planes include the Airbus A320 that, with 155 passengers and crew, went into the Hudson a year ago this week after hitting a flock of Canada geese. No lives were lost in that dramatic river landing.
But when a Sikorsky helicopter crashed en route to an oil platform last January after hitting a red-tailed hawk near Morgan City, La., the two pilots and six of seven passengers were killed. The lone survivor was critically injured.
Why the increase in bird-strike reports?
Airports and airlines have become more diligent about reporting, said Mike Beiger, national coordinator for the airport wildlife hazards program at the Agriculture Department. Experts also blame increasing populations of large birds like Canada geese that can knock out engines on passenger jets.
Reports of bird strikes through July have doubled in at least 17 states since 2005, including many along the Mississippi and central migratory flyways running across the central U.S. The 17 states are: Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin.
The surge in reports for 2009 — expected to be as much as 40 percent higher once the final accounting is in — comes in spite of government concerns that disclosing details about such strikes would discourage reports by airports and airlines out of worries about lost business. The previous high was 7,507 strikes in 2007.
After US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson on Jan. 15, the AP asked the government for its data, including details about more than 93,000 strikes since 1990. Even after the FAA agreed to turn over the records to the AP, it quietly proposed a new federal rule to keep the information secret. But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood intervened and ordered the release. LaHood recently included the disclosure in a list of the department's leading safety accomplishments for last year.
"Going public doesn't appear to have harmed it, and every indicator I have is we have an increased industry awareness on the importance of reporting," said Kate Lang, FAA acting associate administrator for airports, in an interview.
Not all airports have been diligent. Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, for example, showed 46 strikes during the first seven months of 2008 but only 12 for the same period in 2009. When the AP asked about the decline, the airport said there were 28 strikes — not 12 — during that period in 2009 but the airport had neglected to report more than half of them.
A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, John Kelly, said the reporting failure was an oversight and the airport would immediately file the missing incidents. The authority manages the airport, which last year had one of the highest rates of bird strikes in the country.
Dolbeer, the government's bird-strike expert, said a spate of serious collisions that took place miles away from airports was especially troubling.
On Nov. 4 over eastern Arizona, for instance, air cargo pilot Roger Wutke had just begun a descent from 11,000 feet in his twin-engine Beechcraft turboprop when a western grebe — a two-foot-long water bird — crashed through his windshield. The bird hit Wutke, knocking off his glasses, breaking his radio headset and splattering him in blood.
Unable to see out much of the shattered left windshield and unable to hear air traffic controllers, Wutke still managed to land the plane safely.
"I don't know how I did it," Wutke, 26, said in an interview. "It was pretty rough."
Two days earlier, a Delta Air Lines jet en route from Phoenix to Salt Lake City with 65 passengers struck grebes at about 12,000 feet. The impact tore a 21-inch hole in the MD-90's fuselage, forcing pilots to declare an emergency and return to Phoenix.
On Nov. 14, a Frontier Airlines Airbus A319 en route to Denver collided with a flock of snow geese at about 4,000 feet, forcing the shutdown of one engine. The other engine was also struck but didn't lose power. The plane returned to Kansas City for an emergency landing.
The FAA has mostly focused on keeping birds away from airports, where most strikes take place. But grebes and snow geese are migratory birds and were flying miles away from airports when these collisions took place — evidence that more attention is needed to reduce the threat of wildlife strikes away from airports, Dolbeer said.
The FAA said it is cracking down on airports who have had serious bird strike incidents but failed to complete required assessments of risks from birds. The agency identified 91 airports that should have conducted formal assessments but didn't, Lang said. The agency is working on a proposal to make the assessments mandatory for all commercial airports. It's also testing different bird-detecting radars, which enable workers to find birds and chase them away.
Some airports are replacing shrubbery that attracts birds and insects that other birds eat. In some cases, airports bring in predatory hawks to chase away flocks of smaller birds.
In the first seven months of 2009 there were 4,671 wildlife strikes reported in the government's data, an increase of 22 percent over the same period in 2008. More serious accidents increased over the same period by 36 percent. Officials are still manually adding paper reports for the second half of the year, and they said online reports indicate an even larger increase over that period.
The database includes collisions with all wildlife — deer and coyotes on runways, for example — but historically 98 percent of reported incidents involve birds.
In one case, according to the government reports, a bald eagle was sucked into the right engine of a United Airlines Boeing 757 that had just taken off from Denver International Airport and caused $14 million in damage. The plane, with 151 passengers and crew bound to San Francisco, returned to Denver.
Last month, a Continental Airlines Boeing 767 with 134 passengers struck birds after taking off from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, damaging one engine. The plane dumped 9,700 gallons of jet fuel over a warehouse district west of Newark before returning to the airport.
The data showed 218 airports reported fewer strikes during the first seven months of 2009, but 351 airports reported more strikes; 59 reported no change from the same period the previous year.
Denver recorded more bird strikes in the first seven months of 2009 than any other airport with 273, an increase over 223 during the same period in 2008. It is spending more money and has hired a second biologist.