Severe collisions between airborne jetliners and birds — such as the "Miracle on the Hudson" flight downed over New York two years ago by a flock of geese — have soared the past two years, a USA TODAY analysis of the latest federal data shows.
The trend, driven by a growth in the population of large birds, has unnerved some of the field's leading experts and prompted calls for new efforts to reduce the dangers.
The number of severe bird strikes suffered by airline flights above 500 feet reached a new high of 150 in 2009, the federal data show. That represents a 40% increase in the rate of bird strikes compared with the average from 2000 through 2008. The trend continued last year, which was on a nearly identical pace of serious strikes through November, the most recent data available from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The most severe collisions were those most likely to cause a catastrophic accident: those causing serious damage, or impacts with large birds or large flocks.
"This really is an area that needs more attention," says Russ DeFusco, the former head of the Air Force's program to avert collisions with birds who now works as a consultant. "There have been way too many close calls."
SAFETY: Awareness of jet, bird collisions needs improvement, experts say
In an era in which airline crashes have become increasingly rare and whole categories of accidents have disappeared, birds remain a stubborn problem, according to experts such as DeFusco.
Last year, two of the most serious airline accidents in the U.S. were caused by birds at altitudes above 6,000 feet, according to National Transportation Safety Board data.
The most severe collisions between airliners and birds, which occur above 500 feet, are up in recent years.
*2010 data through November
Sources: Federal Aviation Administration, USA TODAY analysis
On Aug. 10, a white pelican slammed into the nose of a Continental Express flight into Salt Lake City and shut down the captain's instrument panel. On Nov. 8, a bird ripped a 12-inch gash in the wing of a Horizon Air turboprop near Los Angeles. Pilots were able to land both planes safely.
Richard Dolbeer, a former Department of Agriculture biologist, says federally required efforts to control birds at airports have limited effect once an aircraft lifts off.
In addition to the non-fatal "Miracle on the Hudson," in which US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese Jan. 15, 2009, the last three fatal accidents involving birds have occurred far from airports. "There is no policy for dealing with off-airport strikes," DeFusco says.
The FAA is looking at several measures to reduce risks, from ways to make aircraft more resilient to birds to technology that will keep birds away from aircraft, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown says.
I saw something on TV where it was said that NYC is destroying geese quite a distance from airports to keep them away. There must be a better and more humane way to handle the problem than killing these birds.
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