When birds strike

One pilot's experience, and tips for avoidance

April 1, 2009

The sky was blue, and the day was calm. I was reveling in the joy of flight in my Piper Aerostar at 2,000 feet above the serene landscape. Suddenly, the euphoria shattered. An apparition, materializing out of nowhere, pounced head-on like a monster in a 3-D horror movie. A huge turkey vulture with, it seemed, a look of horror on its face—and its six-foot wings spread over the windshield, as it tried desperately to avoid a midair collision—smashed through my windshield at 200 mph.

This image will remain etched in my mind forever. I instinctively ducked just before the impact.

I felt as if I had been hit by a baseball bat. The right side of my face and my right shoulder and arm were numb, leaving me dazed and dizzy. I found myself looking at—and through—a huge hole, more than two feet in diameter, in the windshield (bizarrely, in the form of an almost perfect circle). My headset had been knocked off.

Handling the emergency

I headed in the direction of the closest refuge, St. Lucie County Airport in Fort Pierce, Florida. Fortunately, I knew the location of the airport, so I was not distracted by navigation requirements. I looked around for some emergency landing sites in case either the airplane or I could not make it to the airport.

In my dazed state, I struggled to retain consciousness—and control. My vision was impaired from blood in my right eye and from the 200-mph wind, more than double hurricane force, screaming through the hole in the windshield.

I made my turns and descent very slowly because I did not want to tax my impaired abilities and did not know the effect of the collision on the aircraft’s flight characteristics. I considered engaging the autopilot but felt that, under the circumstances, it could be more of a distraction than a benefit.

To minimize the debilitating impact of this tempest in a cockpit, I slowed the aircraft, reducing the incoming gale to a mere 150 mph. I lowered my head, flying by the artificial horizon as much as possible and squinting at the real horizon on the other side of that wind only as necessary. I tried to protect my eyes with my hand while wiping the blood from my eye.

The noise was ear splitting. I made no effort to locate my headset because both transmission and reception would have been impossible in that deafening environment. More important, I did not want to distract myself from flying the airplane. Instead, I punched 7700 into the transponder, hoping the tower would clear the airport for me. Even if it didn’t, I was going to land there, one way or another, assuming I made it to the airport.

While I was obviously concerned about my own survival, the possible carnage from an uncontrolled crash into the built-up residential communities below intruded into my other concerns. The mantras “stay calm” and “fly the airplane”—welcome recollections from my many years of Air Force training—kept popping into my befuddled mind as I focused on retaining control.

Since I did not know whether the vulture had been flying in formation with any wingmen, I checked for other damage after I became more comfortable with my control of the airplane. I very gingerly tested the flight controls, flaps, and props to see if there had been any strike damage to them. Thankfully, they responded normally.

Remembering the aerodynamic effect of a thin layer of ice on lift, I decided to increase my approach speed slightly because of the possibility of damage to the wings. Since my vision had improved, I decided to refer to the prelanding checklist in the event that stress or confusion might cause me to overlook a critical step.

Fortunately, I landed uneventfully and turned off the runway at the first taxiway. I put on my abandoned headset to communicate with the tower and taxied to the ramp. An ambulance rushed me to the hospital.

I was covered in blood. As the nurse was cleaning off my face, she found some bird feathers, indicating that only part of the blood was mine. A CAT scan revealed that I had suffered no internal injuries. My main injuries were contusions—including on my right thigh and stomach, which I still can’t understand how they got there.

I considered myself very lucky that the vulture did not strike the airplane just six inches to the left, resulting in a full-frontal mash, which would have ruined my whole day.

After the accident

Having survived the bird strike, a new concern surfaced: What would the inevitable FAA and NTSB investigations uncover? I worried about whether my logbook, POH, charts, GPS data cards, and other records were current and in order, although I am usually meticulous about compliance. I called AOPA and was told that accident investigators had fairly wide latitude to check the airplane for records currency without the pilot being present. Would I come off relatively unscathed from the bird strike only to become embroiled in an enforcement action?

The accident had occurred on a Saturday. I had recovered sufficiently by Monday to drive to the airport (90 minutes away) to check out the damage. When I got there, I learned that an FAA investigator had been there the day before. Fortunately, everything was current.

In short order, I spoke to the FAA, NTSB, tower, and airport management. The FAA examined only the damage. Both the FAA and the NTSB told me that there would be no further investigation because the outcome was uneventful (to them, not to me): No injury plus no structural damage equals no investigation. Whew! Most gratifying were the compliments I received from the personnel of all four of these aviation agencies regarding my handling of the incident. They were amazed at the size of the hole in the windshield, larger than any of them had previously seen. The tower controller expressed surprise that I had turned off on the first taxiway.

Blood and remains were splattered throughout the aircraft, and the stench was nauseating. I took some photos to document the damage for insurance purposes. Viewing the damage, I envisioned how much worse the outcome could have been and reflected about the role that many years of flying experience had played in preventing a disaster. Then I thought about the resistance I had faced from my insurance company because I was an older pilot, disregarding this experience. I smugly wondered how much greater its liability might have been had a younger but less experienced pilot been at the controls when this bird literally came out of the blue.

Before the bird-strike encounter, numerous birds of varying dimensions had whizzed by my aircraft uneventfully. This lulled me into believing—as I’m sure many other pilots do—that birds are not a serious risk, that their survival instincts keep them, and us, out of serious danger. How wrong I was.

Bob Behren is a lawyer, CPA, author, publisher, and former law professor. A former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and a recipient of the FAA’s Master Pilot Award, he holds ATP and CFI certificates and has logged almost 6,000 flight hours.

Little-known facts about bird strikes

The laws of physics dictate that the greater the mass and velocity, the greater the likelihood that any damage from an encounter will be severe.

  • The force of the impact on an aircraft generally depends on the weight of the bird, the difference in velocity, and the direction at impact. The force increases with the square of the speed difference—although a low-speed impact of a small bird on a car windshield generally causes no damage, high-speed impacts with aircraft can cause considerable damage.
  • The impact of a 12-pound bird at 150 mph equals that of a half-ton (1,000 pound) weight dropped from a height of 10 feet (ouch).
  • Turkey vultures have been identified as the most damaging bird to aircraft, followed by Canada geese and white pelicans, all very large birds. The typical adult turkey vulture is 26 inches to 32 inches long, with a wingspan of 68 to 72 inches.
  • The number of reported bird strikes was about 6,000 in 2000, about 5,000 in 2006, and more than 7,000 in 2007. About 80 percent of bird strikes go unreported, so the problem is more serious than the statistics indicate.
  • While wildlife on runways is also a problem, birds outnumber mammals by at least 30 to one.
  • There is a 15-percent chance that the point of impact on a GA aircraft would be the windshield. This exposes the pilot to a major risk of serious injury from the strike itself.
  • About 15 percent of bird strikes result in damage to the aircraft. More bird strikes—63 percent—occur during the day than at night (27 percent) and twilight (10 percent) combined.
  • The vast majority of bird strikes occur during takeoff/climb (35 percent) and approach/landing (50 percent).
  • The bird-strike risk is greatest during the bird-migration seasons in spring (March and April) and fall (September and October). More strikes occur during fall migrations because large flocks move to wintering areas over a short period of time, whereas spring migrations are slower and more irregular. There is also an increased risk in July and August when inexperienced birds are present and adults molt their flight feathers.
  • About 90 percent of bird strikes occur on or near airports, with those near water having the worst bird problems. However, birds have also been reported at altitudes as high as 35,000 feet.
  • In non-migratory periods, more than 90 percent of the reported bird strikes occur below 3,000 feet agl, and 61 percent occur below 100 feet agl. However, strikes at higher altitudes are common, especially during migration.
  • The altitudes of migrating birds vary with winds aloft, weather fronts, terrain elevations, cloud conditions, and other environmental variables. They generally climb to 5,000 or 6,000 feet, ascending higher as they burn fat. They like it up there because there is less drag where the air is thinner.
  • There are four major migratory flyways: Atlantic (following the East Coast); Mississippi (following the Mississippi River from Canada); Central (representing a broad area east of the Rockies, stretching from Canada through Central America); and Pacific (following the West Coast). The Mississippi flyway contains the largest number of birds, followed by the Pacific, Central, and Atlantic. Numerous smaller flyways cross these major north-south migratory routes.