Cockpit Chronicles: Avoiding bird strikes

On the season finale of the TV show 30 Rock, Alex Baldwin says to a pilot, played by Matt Damon:

“You’re a pilot, huh. I should pick your brain. I’m developing a daytime talk show with Sully Sullenberger.”

“Yeah, I met that guy. He’s not that great.” Matt Damon, the pilot, says.

“You know what a great pilot would have done? Not hit the birds. That’s what I do every day, not hit the birds. Where’s my ticket to the Grammy’s?”

For U.S. readers, Hulu has a free clip of the exchange.

After I wiped the tears from my eyes from laughing so hard, I realized Captain Damon had a point. In fact, avoiding birds has been a big part of my job for the past two months.

While so much attention is focused on the migratory birds in New York and even Boston, the pterodactyl sized birds of Caracas, Venezuela and Panama City, Panama were appearing far too often. I began to notice a trend. On nearly every arrival and on most departures I flew during the two months of flying down there from Boston and through Miami, we had seen these large turkey vultures and, in Panama City we even had pelicans cross our flight path.

Not Hitting the Birds

Every pilot has had, or at least will see, a few bird strikes in their career. Typically they involve small birds that merely splatter on the windshield or radome without leaving much of a mark. I do feel sympathy for the little creatures with which we share the sky. They were certainly here first, and I’m sure an airliner approaching at five times their own speed has to come as a surprise and significant annoyance to them. There’s just no avoiding these smaller birds.

Small Bird Strike in Barbados

But when it comes to the larger birds, what I jokingly refer to as pterodactyls, we can occasionally see them as much as ten seconds prior to impact. When they’re no longer moving left or right, or up or down across our screen, and instead start out as a little dot on the windshield that rapidly grows in size, you know you’re on track for a possible impact.

We were determined to have a smooth, event-free arrival into Panama City on this trip after the controller confusion fiasco I talked about last week. And it should have been; the weather was looking good, the more senior weekday controllers were sharp and there wasn’t a bump in the air. Surely this would be an uneventful flight.
As is common, to change things up a bit, it was my turn to fly the leg from Miami to Panama City, Panama. Once again, the weather was advertised as 2000 feet scattered and 10 kilometers, exactly the same weather we had on the last trip. During the next five trips to PTY, the reported weather never changed, but the actual weather certainly did.

This time, ATC vectored us out a bit further, and perhaps because they were more senior controllers working the weekday shift, their English seemed much better.

While at a flap setting of 25 and just as I was ready to call for the final flap setting of 30 degrees, Dave said, “There’s a bird.”

I had been looking down at my speed and altitude, to ensure I was fully configured by the 1,000 foot requirement. (See the previous Cockpit Chronicles about FOQA.)

I looked up to see another pterodactyl directly in our flight path. It was flying at first, and then it must have noticed the massive jet bearing down on it, since it began to almost freeze in the air and flail its wings in a very cartoon-like fashion.

I instinctively pulled back on the yoke, not abruptly but with some urgency and managed to clear the spasmodic turkey vulture by just a few feet. We got the last of the flaps out at 1,100 feet and landed without incident.

I wondered if the flight attendants and passengers felt the adjustment to our flight path.

“Did you notice anything on final?” I asked one of our South American based flight attendants.

“Yes!” She said. “What was that?”

So much for no one noticing. Apparently she had been collecting last minute cups and glasses and was actually standing in the aisle at 1,000 feet, a fact that scared me a bit, since it’s usually safe to assume the flight attendants have completed their duties by that point.

Once again at the debrief dinner with Dave, we discussed the approach. He thought it may have been better to continue on the path and hope the bird could maneuver out of the way.

“Worst cast scenario, you hit him. But the impact at 150 knots is much less than at 250.” He speculated.

Dave had a point. We’ve all seen pictures of some nasty bird strikes in the past, but most of the significant ones were while the airplane was climbing and had already accelerated to 250 knots, our speed limit below 10,000 feet.

We had some close calls on takeoff the following week, and so we decided to take Dave’s theory on speed and put it to use.

The “European Climb”

When climbing out of any European airport, we’re required to maintain a slower speed, approximately 20 knots faster than the speed at which we lifted off the ground until 3,000 feet above the airport elevation. We’re still using the same power setting-exchanging the extra speed for a quicker climb.

Since most birds fly below 3,000 feet, why not limit our speed while operating around these areas prone to large numbers of pterodactyls? We could reduce the impact forces since high school physics taught me (or was it drivers education?) that twice the speed results in four times the damage.

The next day, we had a plan. We would fly the European-style climb, which would get us up and away from the ground quicker, and also limit our speed to just 160 knots. A quick crunching of numbers told us that this would be 58% of the energy that we’d have at 250 knots.

On came the weather radar as well, since there has been speculation that birds can actually hear or sense the radar on an airplane and that it may help prevent bird strikes. It couldn’t hurt, I figured.

Sure enough, while climbing through 2,200 feet, we encountered two of the turkey vultures we had seen the day before. This time they passed 20 feet above us and to the right.

I continued to use the European climb technique when flying from Caracas, Venezuela and San Pedro Sula, Honduras over the next few months. It’s a technique that seems to make sense and I hope it’s adopted at airports with significant bird populations.

Much attention has been given to the rounding up of geese in the New York area to limit the exposure to birds. I suspect this is a rather futile measure, but I understand the need to do something to reduce the exposure. The steeper angled, slower speed climb that Dave came up with just might be one way to accomplish that goal.


Just as I was finishing this post, I saw the story reported two days earlier that a garbage dump had been approved for construction just 2,206 feet from the approach end of runway 31 in LaGuardia. And where there’s garbage, there are birds, generally. But Harry Szarpanski, deputy commissioner at New York City’s Sanitation Department, explains in the report that the new design will prevent any smells and trash from escaping the facility. We’ll see.

Even at the slower speeds that airplanes operate close to the airport, birds can still cause problems, as seen in this riveting video by Simon Lowe of a bird strike and subsequent engine fire on a Boeing 757 taking off at the Manchester airport in England.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.