Avian Radar System May Prevent Aircraft Bird Strikes

Birds have been a cause for concern for airport authorities all over the world for decades, as they inadvertently encroach on airplane flight paths, often with disastrous results. The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) recently reported that since 1988 world-wide bird strikes have been responsible for 219 deaths and extensive damage to more than 200 aircraft. It is estimated that damage to aircraft in the United States is estimated to be approximately $126 million annually.

In 2007 the FAA received 7,666 reports of wildlife strikes to private planes, airliners and military jets, a dramatic increase over the 1,759 reported in 1990. There are believed to be a number of reasons for this increase, including the fact that pilots are more diligent about reporting incidents to the FAA, with a view to finding solutions to a very serious problem. In addition to there being more aircraft in service than there were back in 1990, environmentalists believe that populations of wildlife species have adapted to living in urban areas and in the vicinity of airports, possibly due to the quieter aircraft in use today. While quieter aircraft are welcomed by people living close to airports, for birds and airplanes it poses a greater danger as birds can’t detect the new quieter airplanes in time to get out of the way. So, what is being done to address the situation?

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is currently participating in testing an innovative avian radar system which, if successful, will warn air traffic controllers when birds are flying toward the flight paths of approaching and departing aircraft in sufficient time to take evasive action. U.S. Airways Flight 1549 is an example of a situation that could be avoided with the use of an avian radar system. On 15 January 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 had just departed from LaGuardia Airport when the airplane struck a flock of geese resulting in loss of thrust in both engines. Thanks to the quick thinking of the crew, there was no loss of life as the pilot ditched the Airbus A320 in the Hudson River. Had the flock of Canada Geese been spotted on an avian radar system, that particular flight’s take-off could have been delayed by ten minutes or so and avoided the collision.

The U.S. Air Force already makes use of avian radar systems at four of its bases, and NASA uses this system when launching the space shuttle. While the FAA has noted that putting avian radar systems in air traffic control towers at commercial airports may still be several years away, they are nonetheless encouraged by the technologies being developed to avoid aircraft bird strikes.