3rd Battalion, 210th Aviation Regiment
Fort Bliss, Texas
Striking a 150-pound deer with your vehicle can cause substantial damage, maybe even resulting in a total loss. Now imagine what a 5-pound bird impacting an aircraft traveling at 120 knots or greater can do. The damage can be extensive, or even catastrophic, as I found out one sunny day while on a training flight with two initial-entry rotary-wing students.
At the time of the incident, the student pilot in the right seat was flying the aircraft in a straight and level attitude at about 120 knots airspeed and 150 feet above the ground. I was in the left seat with my head down, tuning a radio, when, suddenly, a loud noise rang through the cabin followed by flying glass and debris. It did not register for a moment what had happened until I looked at the student on the controls and saw evidence of a bird, which had traveled all the way to the back wall of the aircraft cabin.
As briefed, the student on the controls and I had our visors in the down position. Unfortunately, the other student, sitting in the jump seat, did not have her visor down and caught a face full of the flying debris. We landed at the closest stage field, where a medevac helicopter met us and transported our visor-less student to the hospital. Luckily, she did not sustain any serious injuries.
The next time my student reported to the airfield, I asked her why she hadn’t worn her visor down that day. During the preflight portion of pilot briefings, it was always briefed to wear the helmet visor in the down position to protect the eyes from flying objects. She replied she didn’t think it mattered because she was not at the pilot’s station. For her, this was a lesson learned the hard way.
Bird strikes cost lives and millions of dollars in damage every year. Remember the A-320 Airbus that crashed into the Hudson River in New York City? Shortly after takeoff, a flock of geese collided with the engines, forcing the pilot to land in the water. Fortunately, everyone on board survived. As my incident showed, the Army isn’t immune to bird strikes and has experienced fatalities, damage and loss of aircraft.
Since then, I have flown many more hours in various rotary-wing aircraft throughout the world at or below 500 feet above the ground, where the majority of aircraft bird strikes occur. While I experienced other bird strikes less serious in nature, I always remembered to brief and use my eye protection.
So what can we do to reduce bird strike incidents? We can try to avoid flying below 500 feet when possible. Also, we know vision is a primary and highly developed sense in birds, and recent work has shown light systems can be an effective tool to repel and alert them to the aircraft by making it more visible. Above all, wear your visor down. It could save your life.
Did You Know?
According to a Federal Aviation Administration report, there were a record 17,358 reported wildlife strikes in civil aviation in 2019. Globally, wildlife strikes killed nearly 300 people and destroyed 271 civil and military aircraft from 1988 to 2020, resulting in billions of dollars in losses. More than half of bird strikes occurred between July and October.