Do you remember that time when you were a passenger on a commercial flight, your plane collided with a bird just before landing and it damaged several engine blades, perhaps even causing it to fail entirely?
No? I’m not necessarily surprised.
I couldn’t tell you how many bird strikes I have experienced throughout my 15 year career as a flight attendant, not just because I have so many years under me now and age has shriveled my brain a bit, but also because I simply wouldn’t necessarily have been aware of it. As long as we were able to make it to our destination without any issues, the pilots would not have necessarily told me. That isn’t to say that having a giant winged creature sucked into a jet engine mid-flight can’t be dangerous, but the engineering that allows an aircraft to continue safely on is simply astounding.
When a bird comes into unfortunate contact with an airplane, it is usually the engines that suffer the most. While it’s not unheard-of for the nose, wing or windshield to sustain damage, the engines are where the fated fowl usually find themselves. The engines can most often still operate after taking damage from a bird strike, and fan blades are even designed not to detach should such an event occur. And even if it should happen, engine-casing systems are designed such that the fan blade would not get sucked back in through the engine and cause a much worse situation. And even more comforting? There’s still another engine to do the work should the first one fail.
Bird strikes are not always reported, but statistics show that they’re on the rise; between 2013-2014, the U.S. saw an uptick from 11,401 to 13,668. However, the FAA reports that the damage incurred by these events has, in fact, fallen. In the same span of time, the reports of damage dropped to 581 from 764. Methods being used to minimize birds, bats and other animals from posing risks to aircraft are fencing off areas that might attract wildlife such as storm ponds, tracking pertinent species to learn more about their migratory habits, using aircraft-mounted lights to make bird detection easier and, my personal favorite, developing new technology to harass and annoy wildlife. (Nothing is funnier than an annoyed animal.)
If the name “Sully” means anything to you, you know that bird strikes can sometimes result in an emergency. In the “Miracle On The Hudson” case, a flock of Canada Geese took out not one but two engines, causing them both to fail, and Captain Sullenberger successfully ditched the aircraft on the Hudson River in New York City, with no casualties or major injuries. While this event was certainly extreme, other bird strikes make the news fairly often, but only in rare cases do they ever result in an evacuation. The usual scenario is a diversion or a return to the airport, where the danger at that point isn’t so much from a failed engine.
The last bird strike I’d experienced (that I am aware of, at least), was probably one of my most frightening situations of my career. I was the lead flight attendant on our evening flight from New York to Los Angeles, and we had just taken off on a clear, cold winter night when my crew and I felt a decent-sized jolt on the right side of the airplane. It would be difficult to describe why it felt odd, but we had all taken notice as we sat in our jumpseats, waiting to reach 10,000 feet so we could set up for our inflight service. After hitting the strange air pocket, we’d noticed the plane wasn’t quite flying the same way anymore, with repeated dips to the right, and we were not climbing as steadily anymore.
Before contacting the pilots, I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t alone in thinking something was a bit disconcerting, and I called my crew in the back to discuss it. As soon as the flight attendant in the back of the plane picked up the interphone, she asked, “Do you smell that?” Another replied, “Yes!” Being in the very front of the plane, I was not able to smell smoke like the two others were. Just then I saw the red light of the Captain’s incoming call, and my blood ran cold as my fears were confirmed. Something was, in fact, wrong. We continued to dip down on the right side and we began circling.
The Captain’s voice was abnormally cheerful-sounding in the way that frightened people talk when they’re trying to convey a sense of calm. He informed me that we’d lost an engine to a bird strike and were burning off a full tank of fuel so that we could land. He’d also said that while the plane could fly alright until then, landing with a fuel tank as full as ours would be tantamount to holding a match to a powder keg, so we would fly until it was safer to touch down but still prepare for a potential fire on landing.
I watched the lights on the houses below for 45 minutes as we circled helplessly, jealous of all the people curled up on their sofas in their slippers, watching television with their families. Inside, passengers seemed to miss the gravity of the situation, napping or complaining instead of praying. We landed safely with a huge sigh of relief and deplaned a cabin full of unhappy passengers, which I took as a sign of a job well done – I would rather them impatient than afraid for their lives. The first officer later showed us a picture of the right engine, which no longer contained a single intact fan blade.
Bird strikes can be frightening and sometimes dangerous, but the fact remains that more often than not, planes are able to withstand them amazingly well. The birds, however, may not be able to say the same.