Airplane bird strikes on the rise, but still low risk

O'Hare looks at Avian Radar
April 7, 2009 (CHICAGO) Statistically, bird strikes are very, very rare. But when they happen, there can be potentially deadly consequences.

The FAA has proposed that it be allowed to keep its database on bird strikes secret for fear that the flying public might misinterpret the risk, which could make the airlines less willing to continue their practice of "voluntarily" reporting bird strikes.

"I can't understand why we wouldn't disclose all the elements related to safety in aviation," said Sen. Dick Durbin.

The FAA's proposed policy has been criticized by many who argue that the public has a right to know and is fully capable of judging risk.

USA Today obtained the FAA's latest bird strike numbers from the year 2007. They show the number of times large birds struck aircraft in the 1990's averaged 323 a year. That number has gone up to 524 a year from 2000 to 2007.

Still, out of 58 million flights in 2007, there were only 550 instances of collisions involving large birds. And, only a third of those cases caused aircraft damage.

Every major U.S. airport uses a variety of techniques to make the airfields as unattractive to wildlife as possible - from pyrotechnics to recordings of Canadian Geese in conflict.

"Using a more natural sound that they understand as hostile is a more effective way of changing behavior than some loud sound," said Joe Seid, Bird-X.

The latest high-tech effort is built on avian radar, which is being used in a pilot project at Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington State and will soon come to O'Hare Airport.

"Avian radar as been used for years, but its not been applied at an airport," said Prof. Edwin Herricks, University of Illinois.

Much like an air traffic controller watches plane movements, avian radar is meant to produce an image of where the birds are. It doesn't detect every target, and the challenge in the technology is to distinguish birds from other images and then get real time warnings to pilots.

"It has showed promise in other situations. Now, we'll be trying to judge its effectiveness at O'Hare in a large civilian airport," said Travis Guerrant, USDA Wildlife Biologist.

The avian radar -- which is still in the developing stages -- is will be installed at O'Hare later this spring.

The FAA is accepting public comment on its proposal to not release bird strike data. Numbers from different databases show bird strikes are up, which may be due to more regular reporting and bigger bird populations.

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