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When Wildlife Decide to Line Up and Wait

December 10, 2020 07:30 | Anonymous


By Leisha Lunnie, Assistant Professor of Aviation, University of North Dakota

Fall in North Dakota is a beautiful time of year. The temperatures have dropped, the air is smooth, and it is wonderful weather for flying. Aside from what the dates on the calendar indicate, it sometimes feels like we only have a couple of weeks of these temperatures and beautiful colors associated with the season. Some would say that North Dakota only has two seasons and fall is not one of them. Regardless, fall in North Dakota can be compared to a toddler: precious and short. So, before the last of the leaves fall from our few trees and the frost covers our vehicles and airplanes in the morning, North Dakota aviators will try to log some time in that perfect flying weather where it’s not too hot and not too cold.

I use this time of year to reinforce the dangers of wildlife to my aviation students. Bird strikes are a serious threat. They like to congregate on the runway and do not seem to be in any hurry to get out of the way. A bird flying at an altitude higher than you will usually dive, if it feels threatened. It really makes one wonder at their intelligence. Of course, a bird strike can happen at any time of year, as proven by possibly the most famous bird strike in recent history: U.S. Airways Flight 1549, nicknamed ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’ and piloted by Captain Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles. In January 2009, the Airbus A320 struck a flock of Canadian geese not long after take-off from LaGuardia and lost power, forcing an emergency descent into the Hudson River. 

Whether it’s geese while flying an Airbus or a barn swallow while flying a Cessna 150, the potential risk for a bird strike is always present. Late summer and fall pose more of a threat, simply because of the number of migratory birds sharing our airspace. According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports, approximately 53 percent of bird strikes occur between July and October. This is when fall migration occurs, as well as young birds fledging from their nests. 

We have covered birds, but what about other wildlife pose a threat to pilots? Rabbits, squirrels, and deer do not compete with our airspace, but they may very likely be occupying space on our runways. Wait, deer? Yes, you read that correctly. While they are less common than seagulls on the runway or a jackrabbit, there’s nothing to stop a deer from venturing across a runway at the absolute worst time. 

This, as I can share from experience, was one of my least favorite adventures in my flight career. As a college sophomore, I often flew home in my Cessna 150 on weekends. When returning that Sunday, I had borrowed my dad’s Mooney M20C, as it was faster and more fun to fly than my little 150.  

It was about 10:30 pm, and it had been a beautifully uneventful flight, followed by a perfect touchdown. My landing rollout was suddenly horribly jarred by the impact of a large white tail deer hitting the right side of the aircraft. I didn’t immediately know what had happened, just that I needed to maintain control of the aircraft and get it stopped. It was a quiet night; the control tower had closed by this time, but the runway lights were still on from my approach and landing. The engine was already stopped due to the impact and it had already been at idle upon touchdown, so I stopped the plane right on the runway and got out to investigate. I’m sure I was shaking when I called the General Aviation terminal for assistance. It was worse when I had to call my dad. That is not a phone call I would ever want to repeat!

We towed the plane onto the ramp and the city took care of the deer carcass, which seemed to have a broken neck from the impact. It hit just in front of the wing, right at the firewall, then rolled under causing damage to the belly of the plane. There were only a few drops of blood, so while it did a healthy amount of damage, it could have been significantly worse. I am relieved it did not happen in December, as I have already heard all the jokes and they would just be worse if there was any chance I had killed one of Santa’s reindeer. 

This time of year, aviators need to be especially vigilant, particularly when flying at low levels over bodies of water. While I do not know of a foolproof plan to avoid wildlife, there are some things we can do to try to avoid wildlife strikes:

Always maintain control of the aircraft (aviate, navigate, communicate)

Have a plan for what you would do during each phase of flight in the event of a wildlife strike

Be prepared to abort a takeoff, if needed

Be prepared to go-around, if needed

Avoid low level flying over bodies of water

In cool weather, a warm windshield will have less likelihood of shattering upon impact 

Consider keeping shatterproof glasses or goggles, in the event your windshield is broken

Before takeoff, ask the airport manager to clear the runway of any congregating birds or animals

If you see birds or other wildlife making a nuisance on the airport, call the airport manager or airport authority board. It is their duty under FAR Part 139 to mitigate wildlife hazards. At a tower controlled airport, you can also report it to Air Traffic Control. They have a duty under FAA Order 7110.65 to inform other pilots of a hazard. If you do have the unfortunate experience of being involved in a bird or wildlife strike, you need to report it to the FAA once you are safely on the ground and out of harm’s way. The FAA Bird/Wildlife Strike Report can be found online at www.wildlife.faa.gov. You can also submit an Aviation Safety Report online to the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) at asrs.arc.nasa.gov The ASRS collects and analyzes this data and uses it to lessen the likelihood of aviation accidents. 

Wildlife are naturally camouflaged to blend into their surroundings. Some will bolt, others will freeze, especially with a landing light blinding them. Deer can run at speeds of 20 to 30 miles per hour and do not let runways alter their course. Fences will not keep wildlife out, and to them it’s just another field to cross, whether on the ground or airborne, leaving us with the responsibility to avoid them.


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