Bird Strikes: a Fowl Experience

by HPA · July 28, 2017

Bird Strikes: a Fowl Experience

By Pamelyn Witteman, PhD

Imagine flying along on a bright, unlimited-visibility day to get a $100 hamburger and all of a sudden, BAM! My windshield glass is shattered, there is red on the windshield and on me. Thoughts assault me. What was that? It cannot be good. Why did I take that high deductible limit?

After wiping my eyes, it became clear (excuse the pun). It was a bird strike, and it was obviously an endangered Aegypius Monachus, also known as the common Vulture, trying to dodge TSA and hitch a flight out of town. What a trick. Vultures are sizeable birds, and can weigh up to 5 pounds and fly at 30 mph. Coupled with my 150 knots, we hit with enough force to do damage to both of us. I wonder if I should have called the Department of Fish and Wildlife or will the medical examiner do that?

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On a more serious note, according to the report Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990–2015 conducted by U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services (USDA) the number of strikes reported annually has increased from 1,847 in 1990 to a record 13,795 in 2015. There has been increased attention to aircraft bird strikes after US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River on January 15th, 2009. The accident report states that the Airbus 320 experienced an almost complete loss of thrust in both engines after encountering a flock of birds and was subsequently ditched on the Hudson River. At least 229 people have died and 194 aircraft have been destroyed as a result of wildlife strikes in civil and military operations from 1988 to April 2009, according to the accident report. While habitat modification research seeks to reduce the numbers of birds near airports, pilots still need to be vigilant. More than 70% of bird strikes occur at or below 500 feet AGL, leaving a pilot little time to respond to the emergency. If you experience a bird strike, remember your flight training, and ANC or Aviate, Navigate and Communicate (A is not for Aviary).


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During an emergency, the pilot’s first job is to aviate. Aviating is your top priority in a situation of urgency, especially when your aircraft has been drastically morphed due to a bird strike. To aviate means just that, make sure you are using the flight controls and instruments to maintain your altitude, attitude, and airspeed. When you have been involved in a bird strike, you may have blood in your eyes as well as on your instruments. Wash or wipe off as much debris as possible and keep scanning from the top-left moving clockwise. The bird could have possibly damaged critical components of your aircraft, and your instruments are essential in your discovery of extensive damage. Now that you are aviating, it is time to navigate.


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Now you have to figure out where you are and where you need to land. If you are flying an aircraft that is cruising at 150 knots as in the above example, you probably have a visual display indicating where you are and where you can land. If not, you have to remember your dead reckoning skills from flight training. Establish where you are and then you should have a rough idea what general direction to head. As a pilot, you should already be scanning for emergency landing zones even before the emergency. Maybe your plane is airworthy, but statistics show that this is not the usual case with a bird strike. You might need to put your “bird” down on terra firma immediately. Which way is the wind blowing? Which direction is the field plowed? Does the road have power lines over it? Which direction are the swells of the waves moving? Each situation will be different. You are PIC, and you can handle situations like a bird strike; after all, it is not an IRS audit. Now that you have a handle on where you think you are going to land, it’s time to tell someone about it, not necessarily the person with you. It is time to communicate.


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What’s your status? Do you have to declare an emergency, for example Mayday or will Pan do? Alternatively, will it be as simple as communicating with ATC and telling them you have had a bird strike and you need assistance? The bird strike may mandate that you have ATC keep other aircraft away from your location while they vector you to the nearest landing site. You could have had the bird strike at night, lost electrical power to your lights and maybe no one can see you. Use the people on the other end of the line to help you out. Otherwise, you can make a bad situation worse. Make sure you communicate after you have aviated and navigated. Try to keep your aircraft AGL until you are ready to land.

If you have lost your ability to determine which radio frequency you need, you should have memorized long ago, or possibly tattooed on your forearm with a bubblegum stick-on tattoo, 121.5 MHz or 243MHz depending on the type of radio communication in your aircraft. The frequencies are the standard emergency frequencies that commercial aircraft and ATC are mandated to monitor. When ATC tells you to turn 360 degrees and you are thinking you need to head 180, remember who had the bird strike, the hit on the head, and who has the big radar scope holding a cup of coffee in the air-conditioned room. Remember, comply. It is easy to get disorientated and distracted after an incident. Also, don’t forget to turn your transponder to the emergency frequencies 7700, it’s tattooed right next to the 121.5 MHz.

Remember the big sky theory and approximately 99.9% of everything flying in the skies with you are just insects, but the .1% is you and the birds. Stay safe and plan ahead for emergencies.

Aviate, navigate, and communicate.

Dr. Pamela Witteman is a freelance academic writer with many years of flying experience.

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

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The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).


At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

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