FROM THE MOMENT the Wright brothers launched their flimsy flying machines at Kitty Hawk 75 years ago, it was inevitable: Sooner or later, an airplane and a bird were going to collide with disastrous consequences.
It happened the first time in 1912, when famed transcontinental pilot Cal Rodgers was killed in Calfornia after his fragile craft smashed into a gull. It is still happening. Every year, there are some 10,000 "bird strikes" on planes worldwide, adding up to at least $100 million in annual damage, with some estimates as high as $1 billion. Most commercial airline mishaps occur in the wetlands - prime bird habital.
It is remarkable that only 140 people have been killed as a result of bird-plane mishaps over the years. But jumbo jet planes are continuing to get bigger and faster and there are more and more of them. They must share the air in the United States and Canada with 100 million ducks, 5 million geese, a half billion blackbirds and starlings and some 700,000 gulls in eastern North America alone. According to such bird-hazard experts as Clemson University ornithologist Sidney Gauthreaux, who has probably done more radar research on bird migrations than anyone in the United States, it is only a matter of time before a bird-plane crash of appalling proportions takes place somewhere in the world.
What's being done to minimize that grim probability? At some airports, a great deal. At many others, not enough. And at some, according to Paul Powers, manager of flight safety for American Airlines, "absolutely nothing," In the United States, says John L. Seubert, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are "at least 140 civil airports with bird problems, yet few airports have effective programs for reducing bird hazards.
echniques ranging from habitat manipulation to scaring devices are now available to reduce the risk, but many of them are not being used adequately. "I don't see much happening until a couple of jumbo jets go down," biologist Gauthreaux asserts.
Tom Crandall, the Federal Aviation Administration expert on bird strikes, contends that U.S. airports have a far better record of bird control than either Seubert or Gauthreaux suggests. But he concedes that "the only time we get anything moving is when we have an accident."
The most serious bird-plane accident so far occurred 18 years ago in Boston when an airliner flew into a flock of starlings; 62 people died. Two years later, another passenger plane ran into a migrating flock of whistling swans and crashed in Maryland, killing 17 people.
Tales of near-misses are almost as hair-raising as actual crashes when they involve jumbo jets. In 1972, a DC-10 over Tulsa landed with only its tail engine after birds knocked out the other two. That same year, a 747 turned back over the Sea of Marmara after a bird strike knocked out two engines on takeoff in Istanbul. In 1973, another 747 lost two engines on takeoff in a bird strike incident in Australia. A Matter of Costs
WHY AREN'T THE AGENCIES responsible for air safety doing more? The answer is money. Because of the enormous costs involved in the airline business, charge critics such as Clemson's Gauthreaux, the industry tends to move slowly on problems until a major disaster forces faster action. "We have the expertise to identify the bird strike problems and recommend solutions," he insists, "but our hands are tied when it comes to implementing the recommendations. It's all dollars and cents."
How much money is enough?Kennedy International Airport in New York spends a half million dollars a year on bird control. But Kennedy's problems are especially severe.
On Nov. 12, an Overseas National Airways DC-10 smashed into a flock of gulls on takeoff there.One engine distegrated and caught fire and the resulting shrapnel blew several tires apart. When the plane was finally brought to a slithering stop, the 139 passengers and crew -- all airline personnel trained in emergency evacuation -- hurriedly left the plane. Few were injured seriously, but seconds later the entire craft was engulfed in flames.
The incident followed an unusually high number of bird strikes at Kennedy. In just one month, birds had hit seven large jets, with damage so severe that five engines had to be changed, two on the same aircraft. As a result, the airport put a number of bird dispersal program s into operation, including shotgun patrols, carbide cannons which make loud noises and recordings of distress calls.
After the DC-10 crash, the Fish and Wildlife Service, through the National Transportation Safety Board, made 21 additional recommendations for Kennedy. These ranged from various types of habitat modification, such as draining a decorative pool at the airport's chapels (which also happened to attract birds) to maintaining two or more vehicles in "an agressive and vigilant shotgun patrol."
Kennedy is now generally conceded to be doing on e of the best bird control jobs in th United States. But, say some safety experts, even that is inadequate. "kennedy could definitely be doing a better job," says Paul Powers, the American Airlines safety man. "Despite the fact that a large percentage of bird strikes occur at night, Kennedy doesn't have a nighttime bird patrol." For one major carrier, 36 percent of its bird strikes occur at night.
Some scientists cite the bird-control program at London's Heathrow Airport as one of the best in the world. There, trained personned in up to four vehicles patrol the runways 24 hours a day every day. They use distress calls, flares and exploding or whistling shell crackers to frighten birds.
Canada is considered another pacesetter in the field of bird-strike control, due in large part to research by a special government committee on bird hazards. Created in 1962, the committee first explored ways to "bird-proof" airplanes. But a 4-pound bird that strikes aplane going 500 miles an hour exerts an impact force of 80,000 pounds. Most modifications were uneconomical simply because of the weight of materials required to withstand such impacts. That, in turn, suggested biological solutions.
In Canada, managing these birds by manipulating their living space is particularly frustrating because many airports are located along migratory bird flyways and in ideal bird habitat, on islands, near marshlands, adjacent to land-fill sites and dumps, and occasionally, as is the case with Kennedy, next to a bird refuge. Even so, wildlife biologists have been able to reduce the attraction for birds by eliminating food (including garbage dumps), shelter and water.
Some bizarre devices have been tried to scare off birds. Model airplanes in the form of hawks were used in New Zealand and elsewhere. Falcons were used by the Royal Navy to clear runways in Britain. Recorded distress calls were played in Germany and other countries. In Toronto, snowy owls were trapped and moved. Dead or model gulls in contorted positions were mounted along runways -- sometimes angering humane groups.
Unless used incombination, most of these techniques, researchers soon found, were effective for only a short time -- until the birds became accustomed to them. The ultimate ground dispersal procedure seemed to be regular auto patrols combined with a number of scaring methods.
Avoiding collisions with birds on the ground is tough enough; avoiding midair collisions is even tougher. But the Canadians and researchers in other countries have come up with a mass of new information about migration routes and flight patterns -- the idea being that airplanes could be routed to avoid large concentrations of birds, just as they are often routed to avoid severe weather.
At the same time, radar readings gave airport controllers a potential new tool to enable them to issue even more specific warnings. On the other hand, obboard devices sedigned to disperse birds in a plane's pateh -- including micro-waves, lights and lasers -- have shown little promise.
In Western Europe, the military has developed a teletype warning system based on radar observations. As a result, bird strikes in some instances have been reduced by two-thirds in Denmark. In Canada, a dozen $1.5-million fighters crashed after hitting birds in the eight years prior to 1973, since then, largely because the fighters avoid flying through large concentrations of birds, no more pleanes of that type have been lost to birds. Four Troubling Areas
LAST YEAR, Canada's committee on bird hazards was disbanded, at least temporarily, because it had found out nearly everything it had been charged with finding out. But at least four areas still troubel many experts:
Failure of airports to patrol for birds on a routine basis. "Very few," says biologist Hans Blokpoel, who wrote the authoritative book, "Bird Hazards to Aircraft," "have an organization which includes a bird-scaring team 24 hours, a day."
Failure to use radar technology and to transmit it to pilots in usable form. In Canada, Demark, Sweden and Belgium, researchers have developed "black box counter's" which automatically tabulate location, density, altitude and direction of birds from radar readouts. Except in Belgium and Denmark, though, this technology is not being used -- partly, Canadian biologist Victor Solman says, because harried controllers, whose first requirement is to keep airplanes from running into one another, balk at extra tasks.
Susceptibility of the new European Airbus to serious bird strikes. If you wanted to design a vulnerable airplane, Solmon has said, you would do three things: (1) You would use engines which have been known to disintegrate after ingesting birds in DC-10s and other aircraft. (2) You would use only engines. (3) You would put those engines where they are most vulnerable -- under the wing rather than on the tail. That describes the Airbus (A-300), a wide-bodied European-built jet that can haul 229 people. The Airbus has been flying in Europe for two years. Late last year, Eastern Airlines put four into operation on the most bird-infested route (New York to Florida) in the United States.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however.
"Picking on one airplane is a cheap shot," says Jerry Jerome of the Wahinton-based Flight Safety Foundation. "That low-slung engine configuration," says Jerome, who has written numberous articles about the bird strike problem, "describes 90 percent of the fleets that are flying. The A-300 was designed to be a safe airplane."
Susceptibility of small executive jets. "Although data ar limited, these airplanes appear to be especially vulnerable to bird damage and may have a higher bird strike rate," the Fish and Wildlife Service's Seubert says. Why? "Smaller size renders an engine more subject to blockage and / or serious damage," he hypothesizes. Seubert also points out that smaller jets often operate at secondary airports where bird collisions may be more likely.
There is no question that the techniques now available can cut down the probabilities of bird strikes significantly but the problem isn't licked yet. Last April pilot Bobby Knight taxied his Rockwell Commander trubojet onto Chicago's Meigs Field for takeoff. Gulls were on the last quarter of the runway, the control tower warned, but Knight took off anyway. The privately owned executive jet smashed into the birds, banked to the right and plunged into Lake Mitchigan. Knight and three passengers were killed. Afterward the airpoort used a tractor with a front-end loader to shovel up the birddebris on the runway. The remains of an estimated 180 gulls filled three scoops.