birds hitting a plane on the runway at an airport

Patterns in bird-plane collisions identified to help lower aviation risk

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers have identified patterns in collisions between birds and planes in the hope they could reduce the number of incidences in the future.

Worldwide, the cost of bird collisions with planes has been estimated at $1.2bn per year – but additional information on bird movements could help to avoid damage to aircraft and risk to passengers.

Scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology looked for patterns in bird strike data from three New York City area airports.

“Out of all the bird strikes recorded at Kennedy, Newark, and LaGuardia airports during a six-year period, the highest number occurred during migration, especially during the fall, perhaps due to many inexperienced young birds born earlier in the year,” said lead author Cecilia Nilsson.

“Ninety per cent of the strikes involved a migratory species. Our model predicts that the risk for damaging strikes during periods with very high migration intensity increases by as much as 400 to 700 per cent.”

The team used weather surveillance radar from two nearby stations to learn when migration was the most intense at the airports studied alongside detailed bird-strike records kept by the airport operators. Species that most often caused damage were assigned a hazard score.

“The damage caused by a bird strike very much depends on the weight of the bird struck and the tendency of that species to move in flocks,” Nilsson explained. “When large-bodied birds are moving through, the risk for damaging strikes is the highest.”

Species with high hazard scores include Canada Geese, Great Blue Herons, Mallards, and Turkey Vultures, but the greatest number of bird strikes at the three airports involved American Robins.

Commercial aircraft are most vulnerable to bird strikes during takeoff and landing where birds and planes share the airspace; military aircraft are also at risk at the lower altitudes, because they fly low and fast during training exercises. At cruising altitudes aircraft are generally too high to encounter most flying birds.

“It’s important to realise that the timing and species composition of bird movements will differ for each location,” Nilsson said. “But both the eBird data and the radar data are continental datasets so the method used in our study can be applied to other airports to save time, money, and possibly lives.”

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