Can't we all get along?

May 1, 2004

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines avoids close encounters with wildlife when flying.

You'd think we could all get along. We have so much in common. Birds of a feather and all that. But no, we kill them; they kill us.

Egyptians and Babylonians? Romans and Carthaginians? Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote?

No, pilots and birds. Apparently the sky (or the ramp) isn't big enough for both of us. Aerial encounters with our avian friends can be deadly. Ground encounters are more likely financially disastrous.

As Phil Bowie reports in " A Walnut vs. a Coconut" (see page 113), few things in life are as persistent as a bird getting to its nesting place of choice.

Birds, as we all know, are employed by the people who own car washes. But apparently the unemployment rate among birds is rather high, although you wouldn't know that by looking at my car. The unemployed birds all hang out at the airport because, well, that whole sitting-on-the-wire thing gets old in a hurry, and, yes you really do have to watch your step, er, claw when you're sitting up there. One wrong move and you're fried, quite literally. Yes, the view is good from up on the wire, but hey, they're birds, they get the aerial perspective all the time. Penguins, emus, and ostriches might get a kick out of the occasional aerial vista. Boneless chickens, poor things...but I digress.

So the unemployed hooligan birds hang out at the airport. They probably smoke and drink (Wild Turkey, undoubtedly) and they certainly get into a lot of trouble. A number of years ago my Cessna 172 and I were victims of these creatures.

During a preflight one spring morning I noticed a piece of straw draped on the rudder-attach hinge. I pulled it out and saw another strand farther inside. I wedged my fingers into the opening and pulled it out. Down on the elevator, I noticed some more grass and a piece of string. "You've been attacked," I said to the airplane.

"Lousy squatters. Just because this thing costs as much as a small house doesn't mean you can live in it." I knew the birds were listening.

Seeing no more evidence of an invasion, we went flying.

The next day I was back with chunks of foam painted orange. More straw, grass, a cigarette butt — I knew they smoked. I looked the airplane over and saw no evidence that a nest had actually been built. I beat on the tail and no squatters went flying so I stuffed the foam into the various holes in the empennage and left. Problem solved.

Striking out

A few days later I returned to the airplane to putter with a faulty instrument. I suspected a loose or broken wire and wanted to do some troubleshooting. As I opened the airplane I noticed some bird, uh, leakage on the seat back. Who's been perching on my headrest?

Opening the baggage compartment, I thought I heard, not a puddy tat, but a peeping noise. Made me wish I had a puddy tat. Could those be baby hooligans in my tail?

What must I have looked like to them — this giant disgusted eye peering in through the small hole in the vertical stabilizer structure. "You come out of there right now!" They didn't, of course. I pounded the empennage with my fist to see if mom was around. As I peered into the cabin, she flew up from the tail section. Somehow at seemingly 100 mph she wedged past a piece of broken plastic on the aft bulkhead and into the cabin. She flitted about the cabin as I ducked — no pun intended — and then exited through the open passenger door.

While I debated about what I was going to do about the chirping stowaways, I returned to the original problem. I squirmed down onto the floor, lying on my back with my head up near the rudder pedals. I then began reaching up behind the panel to access the back of the suspect instrument. I spent probably 20 minutes troubleshooting the instrument, most of that time with my head and hands up behind the panel.

I stood just outside the airplane contemplating my next move when a black projectile emerged from under the panel where I had just been and streaked out of the cabin right past my head. That bird had not left the cockpit earlier after all. It had ducked up under the panel and had been within inches of me all that time. If it had flown out when I had been under the panel there would have been more than just bird crap to clean up.

Oh, I know what you're thinking. How serious could this be? Well, let me tell you, the federal government alone has no less than five Web sites dedicated to tracking and reporting bird encounters. (See the links at the bottom of page 40 for access to all of the sites, including the one where you report your own bird encounter.) According to Bird Strike Committee USA, which is one of those Web sites, bird strikes caused nearly $500 million in damage from 1990 through 2002. U.S. pilots reported some 6,300 bird strikes in 2003. The U.S. Air Force itself experienced 4,300 bird strikes last year.

A 12-pound goose struck by a 150-mph airplane at liftoff generates the same force as a 1,000-pound weight dropped from 10 feet. Birds don't need to be large to be dangerous. The committee calls starlings "feathered bullets," with a density 27 percent greater than herring gulls. They apparently haven't run the analysis yet on boneless chickens. I'm sure there's a lab somewhere working on it right now.

Do you want to see the gory encounter pictures? There's a Web site for that too. It's mighty impressive what a bird can do to the leading edge of a Piper Cherokee.

Attack of the ellusive gold digger

While my nerves steadied after my close encounter of the avian kind, I walked over to the maintenance shop to tell my tale of woe. They smirked with that this-is-going-to-cost-you smirk that they teach at A&P school. "You really need to get that out of there. It will collect moisture and corrode. The droppings are corrosive." Well, OK, maybe they didn't use the word droppings.

The mechanics tugged the Skyhawk over to the shop — it's even named after a bird, why would they invade like this? Is Skyhawk somehow offensive to them? Does it mean "nest here; do serious financial damage to the owner" in bird language? Does our ability to fly somehow insult them after they have dominated the skies for millennia? It's been a hundred years. Get over it already!

I checked back later in the day to see the rudder off. It looked like a flicker's nest in there, as my mother used to say about my bedroom. I'm not sure what a flicker is but apparently its nest is messy.

The next morning the elevator was off, and ultimately the entire horizontal stabilizer. "There are 'droppings' and straw all through the thing." It's like an anthrax attack; stuff goes everywhere. I didn't want to know the fate of the little tenants.

Eventually they got the tail all cleaned out and put back together — just in time to present me with a bill for almost $800. "Where's the antenna?" I asked.


"When I spend that kind of money, I want to see something for it. Couldn't you have at least stuck an old antenna on the side just so I feel like I got something?"

"The antenna option costs another hundred."

So the Skyhawk with the cleanest tail on the ramp went back out to the tiedown. And there she was. Waiting. Third airplane from the end. Perched up on the rotating beacon. Are those binoculars she has?

"Are you watching me? Don't you even think about coming over here. You've invaded my airplane, crapped all over my interior, scared the heck out of me, and cost me a pot of money that was going to be a new radio. If you come over here I will kill you. Do you understand me? I will kill you."

So there you have it. Why pilots and birds can't get along. Birds incite violence. They're conniving, mean little critters, and you can't trust them. Give them a perch and they'll take the whole airplane. Trust me on this.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.