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September 4, 2012

FAA reports increase in bird-airplane collisions

The victims could fill a novice bird-watcher's bucket list: blackpoll warbler, double-crested cormorant, American black duck, short-billed dowitcher, black-crowned night heron, magnolia warbler, budgerigar and green-winged teal.

The other victims could fill an airplane repair shop: several Boeing 737s, a Boeing 717, a Beechjet 400, a Boeing 747, a Boeing 757 and a Boeing 767.

Birds and jet airplanes don't play well together.

This fact made news in 2009 when Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III landed a US Airways flight in the Hudson River after a flock of geese stalled both of its engines. Such encounters don't all turn out that well. In 1960, a flock of European starlings was blamed for an Eastern Airlines crash into Boston Harbor that killed 62 people.

Now there are more planes and more large birds flying around, and collisions between them are happening five times more often than they did in 1990, a new federal report says, sometimes with deadly results.

Almost 75 commercial planes have hit birds this year while taking off or landing at Washington's three major airports alone, and in more than than a dozen instances in the past five years, the aircraft have suffered major damage.

Vice President Joe Biden's plane was grounded in April after colliding with birds while approaching the Santa Barbara, Calif., airport, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's Air Force jet was damaged the same month while bound from Brussels to Paris.

The Federal Aviation Administration has spent $458 million in the past five years to control birds and other wildlife around airports, but an inspector general's report says it should do a better job of dealing with the risk animals pose to passengers. The FAA says it plans to tighten its oversight.

"After the miracle on the Hudson and bird strikes on both the vice president and secretary of state's aircraft, I'm a a loss to know what's required to get the FAA to do its job," said James E. Hall, former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. "I certainly hope it will be this report, and not a fatal accident in the future."

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