The Consequences of Bird Strikes: When a Plane Encounters a Bird Collision

The Consequences of Bird Strikes: When a Plane Encounters a Bird Collision

Virgin Australia flight VA 148 experienced a frightening incident last night when the right engine of the Boeing 737-800 jet began making loud noises and emitting flames shortly after takeoff from Queenstown in New Zealand. Despite the engine trouble, the pilot successfully landed the plane with its 73 passengers and crew safely at Invercargill airport. Virgin Australia suspects a bird strike as the cause of the incident, although Queenstown Airport denies any bird activity at the time.

Bird strikes are a common risk for aircraft and can result in damage to planes and even fatalities. These collisions occur when an aircraft collides with a bird or, in some cases, land animals such as deer, rabbits, dogs, or alligators. The first recorded bird strike took place in 1905 when Orville Wright encountered a bird over an Ohio cornfield. Nowadays, bird strikes happen daily, with some variation due to migratory patterns.

One of the most well-known bird strikes involving migratory birds occurred in 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 encountered a flock of Canadian geese shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York. Both engines failed, and Captain Sully Sullenberger successfully landed the plane on the Hudson River.

Between 2008 and 2017, the Australian Transport Safety Board documented 16,626 bird strikes, while the Federal Aviation Administration reported 17,200 bird strikes in the United States in 2022 alone.

Bird strikes primarily occur near airports, especially during takeoff, landing, or at lower altitudes where bird activity is more common. The impact of a bird strike varies depending on factors such as the aircraft type. In some cases, it may result in engine shutdown, as potentially happened with the Virgin Australia flight. The Boeing 737-800 used in this incident has the capability to fly on a single engine to an alternate airport.

For smaller aircraft, particularly single-engine planes, bird strikes can be fatal. Since 1988, there have been 262 reported bird strike fatalities worldwide, with 250 aircraft destroyed.

To mitigate the risk of bird strikes, pilots are trained to be vigilant during times when birds are most active, such as early morning or sunset. Radar can also be used to track bird flocks, although this technology is not universally available.

Major aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus equip their passenger jets with turbofan engines, which compress air using fan blades before adding fuel and flame for thrust. These engines undergo testing to assess their resistance to bird strikes. Manufacturers simulate bird strikes by firing high-speed frozen chickens at the engines while operating at full thrust.

The Australian Government’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority provides guidelines for wildlife hazard management at airports, including techniques to deter birds and animals from the vicinity of runways. These measures may include using small gas explosions to mimic the sound of a shotgun or planting specific grasses and plants that do not attract birds in areas with high bird populations.