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Examining Bird Strikes And Planes

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. The FAA is reporting that all of the passengers on a U.S. Airways flight that crash-landed in the Hudson River today are off the plane and are safe. According to preliminary reports, that U.S. Airways jet collided with a flock of geese before it landed in New York's Hudson River. Bird collisions are one of the most common causes of airplane crashes. According to a committee that's been set up to study this problem, bird collisions have killed more than 200 people worldwide since 1988. And NPR's Richard Harris joins us to tell us more. Richard, that's awful lot of fatalities based on bird crashes. How frequent are these?

RICHARD HARRIS: It is. Well, those are - that's globally. Let's not forget. And many - and of course, millions and millions of people fly, so we have to put that in perspective. But in fact, for example, in 2007, there were 5,000 military aircraft that ran into birds and more than 7,000 commercial craft hit either birds or deer or other things wandering across the runway. And obviously, most of these do not lead to crashes, but a group called Bird Strike Committee U.S.A. estimates that birds do cost $600 million of damage every year on average to aircraft. And in fact, they said many incidents aren't recorded. I do want to add a historical note here, which is the first incident was reported in 1905 by the Wright brothers. So, it goes way back.

BLOCK: Yeah. We should mention that the reports of a flock of geese being responsible for bringing this U.S. Airways jet down are still unconfirmed. The FAA is investigating. But in general, what happens when a bird collides with an airplane? What can happen there?

HARRIS: Well, it can fly into many different parts of the plane and the most damaging place and dangerous place in many incidents is if it goes into the engine. Now, modern airplanes are designed to keep flying if they lose one engine. But if you get a flock of birds, you could clog up multiple engines and obviously, there's a certain point the plane just simply can't stand up. So that's - so it is potentially a very serious situation.

BLOCK: Yeah. And specific types of birds that are usually involved?

HARRIS: Well, waterfowl are very common. Geese, ducks, other birds like that, which tend to be near airports, which tend to be near the water. Seagulls also, and also birds of prey are a problem. Most of these incidents happen pretty close to takeoff or landing because most birds are pretty close to the ground, so it tends to be a problem around the airports.

BLOCK: What do airlines try to do to mitigate harm from birds or to keep birds away from airports in the first place?

HARRIS: Well, they first of all look around the airport and see what is it that's appealing to the birds that's there and if there's standing bodies of water that might attract waterfowl. They will try to make the airport less appealing to that. They - sometimes airlines actually modify their schedules if there are times of day when birds are a particular problem, dawn and dusk and so on. And they also installed soundmakers or some airports have trained dogs or other methods of these just to scare away birds. And in instances where there's - where none of that actually works well enough, they sometimes get permission to go and shoot the birds or find other ways of killing them to just get them out of the way.

BLOCK: And in terms of airplane construction itself, is there anything they can do to make engines, for example, less vulnerable to bird strikes?

HARRIS: That's a subject of study. They do throw frozen turkeys and so on into moving aircraft engines to try figure out ways of designing them. But really, there's - I think that's a fairly limited course of action. Really, the best thing is to avoid the collisions to begin with as much as you can.

BLOCK: OK. We've been talking about bird strikes, which are believed to be responsible for the downing of a U.S. Airways jet landed in New York's Hudson River this afternoon. Apparently, all the passengers on that plane are off the plane and are safe, including the crew. Thanks. NPR's Richard Harris, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Harris
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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