Preventing another ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ emergency

Seven years after what came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” it’s still amazing that everyone aboard US Airways Flight 1549 survived.

Shortly after pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 2009 with 154 passengers and crew, two eight-pound geese flew into each of the plane’s twin engines. Suddenly both engines weren’t working and Sullenberger faced a gut-wrenching decision.

He had to choose between trying to reach an airport runway, or attempting a daring water landing. As we now know, Sullenberger aimed for the Hudson River — which investigators eventually said was the only choice he could have made that would have saved the plane.

Hollywood’s version of Sullenberger’s remarkable story premiered in theaters across America last weekend, offering a disturbing reminder to air travelers: We’re not the only creatures in the sky.

The near-disaster raised awareness about aircraft bird strikes and prompted National Transportation Safety Board investigators to warn airports “to take action to mitigate wildlife hazards before a dangerous event occurs.”

Despite the heightened concern, recent stats tracking annual US bird strikes show they have skyrocketed.

Federal Aviation Administration bird strike reports in 2014 rose to a record 13,688, topping the previous year by 20%. The nation’s No. 1 bird-strike airport: Denver International.

Preliminary figures suggest the approximate number of civil aviation bird strikes for 2015 will rise to a new high, just shy of 14,000.

“Only about 7% of those are actually damaging events — out of that entire 14,000 — spread out across the entire year,” said Mike Begier, national coordinator of the Airport Wildlife Hazards Program at the US Department of Agriculture.

Global deaths since 1988 blamed on bird strikes and other wildlife collisions number more than 250, according to the Bird Strike Committee, a collaboration between the USDA, the Pentagon and the FAA. The estimated cost of all aviation bird strikes, according to the European Space Agency, is more than $1 billion a year.

Bird strike on Air Force Two

If you need more evidence that birds crashing into airplanes is a relatively all-too-common part of modern air travel, just look at the headlines.

In 2012, no one was hurt when birds hit the right side of Air Force Two, with Vice President Joe Biden aboard, as it approached California’s Santa Barbara Municipal Airport.

Last April, a bird slammed into an Airbus A321 carrying 174 passengers taking off from Las Vegas, cracking its windshield.

That same month, birds put a serious dent in the nose of American Airlines Flight 2310 during takeoff, forcing it to return to Seattle-Tacoma airport.

‘Snarge’ = gooey remains

When airplanes and birds collide, you often get “snarge.”

Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution came up with the term to describe tissue and gooey remains that are still attached to aircraft after a collision, said Begier, who took part in the investigation of Flight 1549.

He said he’ll never forget looking closely at the blades of Flight 1549’s engines. In addition to snarge, “you could see the feather remains,” Begier said. The engine was hot at the time of impact, “so a lot of this stuff was sort of baked — if you will. It had gotten hard.”

Begier and his colleagues had been fearing something like this since 1995, when a large US Air Force surveillance jet hit birds on takeoff, killing all 24 crew members. That crash made experts worry that a similar disaster could happen to a large civilian airplane.

The big lesson learned in 2009, Begier said, was, “It can happen. It was no longer an abstraction. We almost had that catastrophic event with the Miracle on the Hudson, but obviously there was a highly skilled crew on that plane and that did not happen.”

Now, with heightened awareness and better airport management of wildlife, Begier said another bird strike like Flight 1549 is perhaps a little less likely.

At an annual bird strike conference last month in Chicago, Begier said he and his colleagues talked a lot about these topics and the consensus was that “airports are doing a heck of a job with this right now, they just need to maintain the course.”

The 20% rise in bird strikes in 2014 is misleading, said Dr. Archie Dickey, director of the Center for Wildlife and Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

There aren’t necessarily that many more strikes occurring, he said. The number of reported bird strikes went up in part because the aviation community is paying more attention. People are reporting strikes more often.

“I think we’re doing better,” Dickey said.

Also, bird strikes that resulted in damaged aircraft are decreasing at larger airports.

“What that says is, all of these programs that we put into place are actually having an impact on the wildlife and the wildlife strikes that we are seeing,” said Laura Francoeur, chief wildlife biologist for Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which includes LaGuardia.

“Statistics indicate that the threat is reducing,” said Greg Marshall, vice president of global programs at the Flight Safety Foundation. “It’s mainly brought about by education and by having very good wildlife management plans.”

It’s not just birds. Hundreds of strikes by bats and reptiles were reported in 2014. At New York’s JFK airport, hundreds of diamondback terrapin turtles have been known to crawl from Jamaica Bay onto airport property — sometimes even getting onto runways.

Dealing with airport critters

The most effective way to force birds away from airports is to take away their habitat, said Dickey.

“Wildlife is going to come in for three reasons: food, water or shelter,” he explained. Remove those and you’ll force birds to go elsewhere.

As a last resort, some airports, such as New York’s LaGuardia and JFK have resorted to rounding up geese and gassing them to death.

Emerging technology may provide other tools. The FAA has spent 10 years trying to perfect special radar that detects birds. It has struggled to track birds because they’re fairly small, but experts said the FAA has been improving it.

Jet engine manufacturers have tried to design screens to protect engine intakes from birds, but so far, experts say nothing has worked well enough to be practical due to air-flow and excessive weight issues.

Training for a worst-case scenario

At the time of Flight 1549, bird-strike avoidance training was not included in US Airways’ ground school curriculum or the simulator syllabus, according to the NTSB.

Seven years later, it’s hard to know if 1549 directly prompted airlines to changes their pilot training. Industry lobby organization Airlines for America said in a statement that pilots for its members “undergo extensive flight training” which includes “preventative strategies.”

Sullenberger’s former employer, US Airways, has merged with American Airlines, which said in a statement this week that “bird strike preparation for our pilots is an important and standard component of training.”

Flight 1549 is certainly the perfect example of what can happen in a worst case scenario, said Andrew Moore, a lead program developer for American Airlines’ pilot training.

Pilots at the airline spend much of their training time simulating failed engine scenarios, Moore said. They work with flight simulators programmed to include failed engine scenarios with an option for an associated “bird visual.”

“There’s always a priority list of things that need to be brought up in recurrent training,” said Moore. “Bird strikes certainly aren’t number one or number two at the moment, but it certainly is always on the list, and there’s always an ongoing discussion.”

Achieving zero bird strikes at airports would be difficult, if not impossible, but the goal would be trying to get as close to zero as possible, said Begier. “We can set benchmarks — and that’s actually a discussion that’s going on in the airport community right now.”

Experts say focusing on effective wildlife management and pilot training will go a long way toward preventing future incidents like Flight 1549. The outcome of the next bird strike emergency may not be as miraculous.