How Stansted Airport is countering threat of bird strikes to planes
- Credit: Archant
Given that thousands of flights take place every single day across the United Kingdom, it is extremely rare for planes to come into contact with birds – known as bird strike.
If one does take place, it is even rarer for it to cause a major problem as modern aeroplanes are built to withstand the force of hitting a bird.
However, large flocks of birds can be dangerous to aircraft, especially if they are sucked into the engine.
In one of the most high-profile cases, in January 2009, the US Airways flight 1549 crash-landed on the Hudson River in New York after a flock of Canada geese were sucked in to the engines.
Fortunately the pilot was able to make an unpowered, emergency water landing and all passengers and crew were evacuated safely.
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Due to this risk, and of course the fact that airlines clearly don’t want to have the deaths of birds on their hands, airport staff are constantly looking at ways to monitor the number and types of birds on and around their airfields and stop them from becoming a potential danger.
And figures released following a freedom of information request to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) reveal such work is needed as there has been an increase in bird strike reports at Stansted Airport in recent years, from 98 in 2011, 73 in 2012, 58 in 2013 and 114 last year.
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One explanation could be that only very recently was it an obligation for airlines to report bird strikes.
However, experts also suggest that an increased number of flights and quieter engines on aircraft may also be factors.
Jon Barber, the airside operations duty manager at Stansted, heads up a team of rangers who patrol the 110-hectare airfield every 30 minutes.
He said: “Our rangers are kept very well informed about the different species of birds we see and their characteristics.
“We can then look at a species in terms of their risk and their ability to be controlled and act accordingly. Different birds react to different things.”
He said particularly intelligent bird species keep the team on their toes: “Magpies, rooks and crows are our biggest challenge because they have worked out that the airfield has a fence running around it and so it is a safe place to be.
“Corvids take just 72 hours to get used to their surroundings and identify what may be a danger to them and what may not.”
There are a number of ways that Mr Barber and his team deter birds from the airfield: “We aim to make the place as unattractive to birds as possible.
“The grass is kept long, around 180mm, birds do not feel safe in long grass because they cannot see what is going on around them.
“The grass is also weed-free to avoid any flowering weeds that might attract insects, which then attract birds.”
The airport also uses sound recordings of bird distress calls to fend off any unwanted feathered visitors.
Off the ground, pilots also have their part to play.
Retired professional pilot Malcolm Purvis, of Sloley, Norfolk, said: “They can do an awful lot of damage, which is why as airline pilots, when we are below 10,000 feet, we keep the speed down and have the lights on to deter birds.”
Aircraft windscreens are made with strengthened glass and the durability of the glass is rigorously tested with a ‘chicken gun’, so-called because of its unusual ammunition.
During testing, a high pressure air cannon fires a whole, dead chicken at aircraft windscreens to simulate the impact of a bird strike.
Laser menace to flight crew
Airports are increasingly having to tackle another problem that could potentially affect pilots, laser interference.
Lasers are a serious threat to pilots as they can cause temporary blindness and eye damage.
They can also obscure a pilot’s vision which is especially dangerous on approach to the runway.
Data from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) shows reported occurrences of people deliberately pointing lasers at aircraft are on the rise.
Stansted Airport had 39 reported incidents last year, compared to 20 in 2011.
A spokesman from the CAA said: “It is something we and the police are very keen to tackle. It is a very dangerous thing to do.”
Shining a laser at an aircraft is a criminal offence and can fall under ‘endangering an aircraft in flight’ which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
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