When and where are you the most likely to experience a bird strike?
Much of the battle to reduce bird strikes occurs on the ground. Airports worldwide continue to implement new methods for removing resident bird populations that repeatedly threaten aircraft operations. The FAA promotes voluntary online reporting of wildlife strikes in an effort to pinpoint when, where, and why they occur. But it’s not just a ground effort. While evasive maneuvers are rarely a helpful solution to avoid damage or injury due to a bird strike, there are steps you can take to reduce the chance of one occurring.
To everything, a season
Pinpointing individual birds is nearly impossible from an aircraft, but flocks and species follow predictable patterns of mobility with the seasons, time of day, and availability of resources. If you’re flying across the country to different airports regularly, you might not want to memorize every bird species out there. But if you generally fly in a local area, knowing the habits of native bird species can give you a better idea of when they will be active and help you plan flights accordingly. For example, if you know that large flocks of geese gather over a certain lake at dusk, you may want to ensure your flight plan avoids flying too low over that area.
In general, birds tend to be the most active at sunrise and sunset, followed by the general daylight hours; most birds roost at night. Bats, and nocturnal birds such as owls may still cause trouble after dusk, however. Birds like to congregate over small bodies of water, along the shorelines of large lakes and oceans, near landfill sites, and over wildlife sanctuaries. Many bird species migrate in the spring and fall, and during the summer, local species may have young with them who are even more unpredictable and ungainly in their flight patterns.
As birds are more likely to be encountered at lower altitudes, most strikes occur at 3,000 ft AGL or less, with many taking place during takeoff or landing. Observe the airport carefully before takeoff to take note of any flocks or large birds in the vicinity, listen to the ATIS for reports of bird activity, and query ATC for more information if you have reason to believe bird strikes may be a real danger to airport arrivals or departures.
For the birds
In almost every case, if you become aware of a bird in your immediate flight path, you are going to hit it. Split-second maneuvering attempts can be jarring and dangerous, and human reaction times are almost always too slow to successful avoid a strike. That said, larger birds and entire flocks may be visible from a greater distance and should be avoided where possible, as the damage they can do is considerably greater than that of one small bird. If possible, avoid such strikes by climbing rather than descending--you are more likely to strike more birds by descending, as some species tend to dive under aircraft in their flight path.
What do you do if a strike does occur? Your first priority is, as always, maintaining control and flying the aircraft. Do not panic. Often, a bird strike may sound alarming from the cockpit when, in reality, very little damage was done. Have your co-pilot or a passenger (if practical) observe where the strike took place and alert you of any noticeable damage.
Once an assessment has taken place, follow any applicable emergency procedures and checklists and assess whether or not you need to make an emergency landing (in the case of a time-critical emergency) or if you can divert to a nearby airport. Alert ATC of the bird strike and ask them for any assistance you might need, particularly if emergency personnel will be required upon landing. If the windshield is cracked or damaged, you may want to consider using a slower airspeed (if practical) or donning goggles or sunglasses (if/when appropriate) to protect your eyes from the wind and any debris.
Upon landing, ensure a full inspection is performed before the aircraft is flown again. It is highly recommended that a qualified AMT inspect your aircraft thoroughly. A simple visual inspection may not capture the extent of damage done. Birds can cause damage to the structural integrity of the airframe or the landing gear, and can cause extensive damage to engines if ingested. If the windshield was broken or cracked, checks should also be performed on all control surfaces and panels.
Bird strike reporting is not mandatory, but is highly encouraged by the FAA. Reporting a bird strike allows the FAA to better understand when, where, and under what conditions bird strikes happen and what kind of damage they cause, allowing for improvements to facilities and manufacturing to reduce such strikes in the future. If you can safely do so, attempt to gather as much information about the bird strike that occurred before reporting. Information such as type and size of bird, the number struck, and details about the damage can prove an immense help to the FAA in analyzing bird strike data.
Birds fly into aircraft on a daily basis, making it likely you will experience a strike at some point in your flying career. The majority of bird strikes that occur each year result in safe landings and minimal damage, but caution must be taken regardless of whether you strike a sparrow or a hawk. Plan your flights carefully to avoid large, likely bird hazards and treat every strike, however minor, seriously.