Flying risky if birds get in engine, veteran pilot says
Seagulls may prove to be a nuisance when they dig into garbage bags left on sidewalks, but they can pose an even bigger problem for airplanes.
Such was the case recently in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, where a Cessna Citation 560XL had to abort its takeoff when it hit four seagulls.
According to a Transport Canada report documented in the Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System, the incident happened Sept. 11. The plane, destined for Buffalo, N.Y., and registered in Germany, was 2,000 feet into its takeoff roll when it hit the birds.
The pilot believed the plane had hit at least one bird. Marks were found on the cockpit window and the leading edge of the left wing. It was also determined that gulls were caught in both of the plane’s engines.
According to Palmer Tibbo, an experienced pilot based in Gander, birds such as seagulls can create trouble when they get caught in engines.
“That could cause a potential flameout of the engine,” said Tibbo.
The speeds reached by planes can make contact with even small birds problematic during flight, according to Craig Blandford, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association.
“If you’re flying along at 250 miles an hour and you hit a bird, no matter what size the bird is, it’s going to leave a dent in your wing or in some part of the airplane,” said Blandford, who is originally from Springdale and was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force for 20 years.
The Transport Canada report said bird activity was light at Goose Bay Airport that day and the runway was scanned by air traffic control prior to takeoff.
“The young gulls blend in with the runway, almost (the) same colour,” noted the report.
Mechanics travelled from Chicago to inspect the Cessna. The report did not specify when the plane was able to depart from Goose Bay.
Tibbo has struck gulls on occasion, but none have ever come in contact with an engine while he’s been flying a plane.
“I did once upon a time flying the air ambulance into St. John’s (have) one hit the windshield,” he recalled.
While birds can cause engine trouble, Blandford said modern planes can often handle them.
“There’s lots and lots of cases of modern jetliners ingesting birds, spitting them out the back and incurring no damage whatsoever. However, on a precautionary basis, if you know you’ve taken a bird, you would come back and land and have the engine serviced and checked, just to make sure everything is safe.”
He said it would take a large bird to damage an engine.
“It’s surprising to learn that frozen chickens and other things are thrown into engines during some of their testing to make sure they can survive.”
Birds were responsible for the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River in January 2009, an incident that did not result in any deaths. The plane hit a flock of Canada geese after it left LaGuardia Airport in New York and lost power before the pilot managed to land it safely on the river.
In the air, Blandford said, there are techniques pilots can employ to avoid hitting birds. Final cruising speed is not reached until 10,000 feet, an altitude at which birds do not tend to fly. Blandford said propeller airplanes often employ paint-schemes that make the propellers visible even as they are spinning.
“Air traffic controllers will also tell you if birds are reported,” he said.
St. John’s International Airport Authority implemented a plan in 2006 to manage gulls on its property.
“I know St. John’s had a lot of them,” said Tibbo. “They had gulls heading towards Windsor Lake or wherever they’d go, and we had the same problem in Gander. In the evening time, you’d get them leaving the local dump and heading for Gander Lake.”
According to Tibbo, propane is used to create a loud popping noise at Gander International Airport that helps keep birds away.