License to learn: Natural hazards

Oh, the fur is really flying now!

August 1, 2012

Many moons ago, on a dual flight to a rustic little airport, my student (we’ll call him Bob) was about to begin his landing flare when things got a little squirrely. A squirrel popped up, periscope-like, near the VASI and then made a mad dash across the runway. Thump! The squirrel had failed to hide his hide. Rod Machado

While it was a sad day for Bob (he likes squirrels), he saw firsthand what happens when the rubber meets the rodent. Fortunately, the runway was dry so there was minimal risk of hydrosquirreling. Given the size of the furry little guy (the squirrel, not Bob), he certainly didn’t present much of a hazard. Fur sure. On the other hand, as a youngster I learned that where there’s a squirrel there is often a moose (or one of his hoofed friends) not far behind. That is where size begins to matter.

According to the FAA’s Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft report, in the 18-year period from 1990 to 2008, civil aircraft experienced a total of 815 deer strikes. The report claims that 63 percent of these strikes occurred during landing, 36 percent during takeoff, 1 percent during taxi. Three percent of the takeoff-phase total was during climbout. Climbout? Oh, deer. Rudolph, is that you? My guess is that a low-profile takeoff, some bad luck, and the fact that deer horns don’t honk led to a collision that knocked the headsets off both the pilot and Bambi. I’m not even sure that using the best angle (or antler) of climb speed would have helped much.

Deer aren’t the only terrestrial mammals pilots have clobbered with their airplanes. In the same 18-year period, reported losses included 58 raccoons, four moose, eight head of cattle, three horses, and one burro. Nothing about a partridge in a pear tree. In the reptile category, we lost 79 turtles and 14 alligators (thus explaining the occasional Gucci handbag found along the runway). It’s a wonder that the FAA doesn’t have a taxidermist on staff.

Several years ago I received a firsthand account of a collision from a professional aerial applicator who had managed to conk a cow on the dairy-air with his cropduster. He said he crested a small hill and didn’t see the cow perched on the peak. Konk! Daisy down. The duster pilot claimed he lost his landing gear but picked up a ribeye in the process. Clearly, cropdusting is high steaks flying.

Aside from the obvious danger to pilots and passengers (16 human fatalities and 209 injuries in 18 years), animal collisions cost us a lot of doe and more than just a few bucks. The Wildlife Strike report indicated that terrestrial mammal collisions resulted in monetary losses of $38.8 million, while bird strikes cost our industry $308.3 million. When you consider that the same report estimated that only 20 percent of wildlife strikes are reported, you get a more accurate sense of what it means to collide with Mother Nature’s expensive little friends.

So what can pilots do to minimize these collisions? First, let me be clear that I’m not recommending that we eliminate the wildlife population by starting a Furs and Chops for Everyone movement. I’m not really into hurting any animal, unless of course it barks at night. I’m only interested in avoiding hitting them with an airplane. That’s why knowing where and when wildlife strikes are likely to occur gives you the advantage of knowing when and where to look for these critters.

Both terrestrial mammals and birds are more likely to be struck when landing (63 percent and 64 percent, respectively) compared to taking off. The majority of these strikes occurred from July to October for birds and July to November for terrestrial mammals (think summer and early autumn). There is, however, a night and day difference between terrestrial mammals and birds that’s as big as night and day. While terrestrial mammals were more likely to be struck at night (64 percent), birds were more likely to be struck during the day (61 percent). If the FAA ever gets around to promoting its Birds With Beacons program, perhaps this difference will diminish. Finally, bird strikes occurred below 3,000 feet agl 92 percent of the time and below 500 feet agl 72 percent of the time. This makes sense, since worms don’t fly.

So there you have it. You are now able to better estimate when and where you need to be more vigilant for one of Mother Nature’s terrestrial or airborne natural hazards. After all, if Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson” flight taught us anything, it’s that these hazards do exist and they’re potentially life-threatening. Frankly, that gives me goose bumps.

Visit the author’s blog.