CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 OMAR C. GOBOURNE
A Company, 1st Brigade, 224th Aviation Regiment
District of Columbia Army National Guard
Davison Army Airfield
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
There we were (per the cliché), flying along fat (not so fat), dumb (not too dumb) and happy (very happy) within the New York City helicopter route just below 1,500 feet. We were headed west along the southern shore of Long Island. The picturesque city skyline was about 20 miles in the distance, but the air was so crisp and clear that it seemed like we could reach out and touch the buildings towering into the blue expanse. The sun was dancing lazily along the horizon, spreading rays of pinks, purples, blues and violets all over the landscape without obscuring our vision. There was at least two hours of sunlight left in the cold December sky — plenty of time to make the trip back to base.
The radios were silent, systems were in the green and the Atlantic Ocean was rolling calmly along the empty white sand beaches below. “Bird eleven o’clock,” the left seater said matter-of-factly. “Contact,” responded the right seat, followed by smooth cyclic inputs that guided the aircraft effortlessly toward the one o’clock position. Suddenly, appearing to lunge toward the helicopter directly out of the central Manhattan skyscrapers — “Bird!” A hard left bank, which seemed to place the helicopter at almost a 90 degree angle, was not enough. Bang! Bump! Thump! Then silence.
All systems were fine, the control inputs were normal and there was no visible damage to the aircraft from what we could determine. We flew along monitoring our instruments and checking our flight controls for feedback. As a crew, we decided to continue to our planned fuel stop. Once on the ground, we inspected the aircraft, reported the incident to higher headquarters and got permission to continue the flight back home.
There was no damage to the aircraft, which we further established at our home base. However, the blood, guts and other gooey goop left on one of our rotor blades confirmed what we suspected — a bird strike. We had sent another one of our fine feathered friends to that big bird sanctuary in the sky.
Bird strikes, or wildlife strikes, are a genuine safety concern for Army and civilian aircraft. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were about 142,000 wildlife strikes with civil aircraft in the United States between 1990 and 2013. This number is remarkably high in comparison to statistics gathered from U.S. Army accident information database. Over the course of eight years (2010 to 2018) there were 41 bird strikes involving Army rotary-wing aircraft. Of course, these are reported incidents that caused damage. We are not able to count the close calls, or those incidents causing little or no damage, because they were not reported.
Although the number of Army incidents appears low, we must highlight the cost associated these events. Damages associated with these reported bird strikes amount to more than $6.2 million and one fatality. What we should also note is the altitude at which most bird strikes occur. The FAA reports that 92 percent of the commercial civil aircraft bird strikes in the United States occur at 3,500 feet above ground level. For example, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 reported striking a flock of geese at about 2,900 feet, causing dual engine loss and an emergency landing in the Hudson River. If birds can take out a large commercial aircraft, how easy is it to down a helicopter? Although helicopters do move much slower, and pilots may be able to see and avoid birds easier, most operate below 3,500 feet, which is inside the 92 percent zone.
As the Army begins to explore future operations with a peer or near-peer enemy, one thing is certain: Army tactics and procedures may very well require helicopter operations happen closer to the ground because of better developed anti-aircraft threats. Army aviators will have to condition themselves to fly closer to the valleys, rivers, trees and fowl. Yes, birds may become a greater planning consideration than they have been in the past.
Pilots need to be more deliberate in planning and conducting missions with birds in mind. The previous statistics may show a minimal level of notable incidents; however, the cost associated with those incidents is still significant. As the tactical environment changes, it is key that Army aviators continue to keep the loss of life down while concurrently maintaining good stewardship over limited operational and financial resources.
There are a few simple steps aviators can take to ensure bird strikes do not increase as we adapt to the new tactical environment. First, they must be aware of Notices to Airmen, or NOTAMs, provided by aviation operation facilities. Oftentimes, the NOTAMs annotate bird movements. This allows pilots to gain information about possible bird activity along the planned route of flight. The crew briefing should include actions the pilots will take if they encounter bird activity. Furthermore, they should discuss scanning sectors, avoidance maneuvers and what actions they will take in the event of a bird strike.
Aviators must also be aware when bird activity is at its highest. The FAA states that more than half of reported bird strikes occur between July and October, with most taking place during the daytime. About 30 percent of bird strikes occur at night. For self-protection, pilots should keep their helmet visors down (clear or shades) and wear the maxillofacial shield during flight. This will help reduce the possibility of injury should a bird strike compromise the cockpit. Finally, pilots need to report/discuss near misses and minor bird strikes to unit safety personnel. This will allow them to track tendencies and develop tactics, techniques and procedures, ensuring the skies are a safer place for our helicopters — as well as our fine feathered friends.