How many of you have hit a bird or another type of animal with your airplane? How many of you know someone who has?
If you have, you’re not alone. According to the FAA, there were some 142,000 wildlife strikes involving civilian aircraft reported in the United States between 1990 and 2013. The FAA’s wildlife strike database breaks the occurrences down state by state and indicates if the wildlife involved were avian, mammal or reptile.
Birds are the most commonly reported wildlife strikes. About 92% of the bird strikes happen below 3,500 feet AGL during the day, according to FAA statistics. Most of those — 60% — are during the landing phase of flight.
Time of year also plays into the number of incidents, as about 52% of bird strikes occur from July to October when young birds leave the nest and fall migration occurs. Gulls are the mostly commonly encountered birds, although statistically ducks and geese are apparently the most destructive when they collide with an airplane.
Florida, which has the American Alligator as its state reptile, leads the nation in the occurrence of reptile incidents with 40.
My home state of Washington had 785 wildlife strikes reported, of which just 11 were mammals. I must claim two of those: An unfortunate encounter with a pair of porcupines during a night landing in 2001, and the Kamikaze Bat Strike of 2002. The events took place at two airports. With the exception of one popped tire, there was no damage to the aircraft. The animals weren’t so lucky.
Other mammals involved in wildlife strikes include skunks, possums, raccoons, coyotes, deer, elk and rabbits.
If you hit an animal or bird with your airplane, the FAA wants to know.
It has a Wildlife Strike Report form on its website. The form asks for details of the incident, including the date, time and place, the weather conditions, phase of flight, if the remains were collected and submitted to the Smithsonian for positive identification, damage to the aircraft, effect on the flight, and the cost, if any, of repairs.
The information then goes into a database of wildlife strike reports. The purpose of the database is to keep track of these occurrences in order to find better ways to mitigate them.
It’s important to report the type of animal involved, noted Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA Pacific Division, because it helps with the development of mitigation plans.
“A few years ago the FAA encouraged all Part 139 airports to conduct Wildlife Hazard Assessments and follow up with a Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Plan,” Gregor said. “To date, all Part 139 certificated airports have completed or initiated a Wildlife Hazard Assessments. During our annual inspections of Part 139 airports, the FAA reviews the Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Plan and identifies the specific actions which the airport will take to mitigate the risk of wildlife strikes on or near the airport. The inspector also discusses any known wildlife strikes, observes any wildlife on or around the airfield, and will bring up his observations with the airport operator.”
The FAA supplies guidelines for the mitigation of the wildlife, which can include installing deer-proof fencing, using noise cannons to disperse birds, or making ponds of water less attractive to water fowl by covering them with black plastic balls to make the ponds look like asphalt to the birds. Sometimes the nuisance animals are recaptured and relocated to a less aircraft-rich environment.
Animals are attracted to airports because of habitat or as a food source. The latter can increase seasonally. For example, you may notice an increase in coyotes, hawks and eagles at your airport in the summer, because of an increase in the rabbit population facilitated by an infestation of displaced easter bunnies. When the store-bought rabbits are no longer wanted they are dumped by their owners, who often mistake the green grass of many an airport for a park. The rabbits breed like, well, rabbits, providing an ample food source for the predators.
According to Gregor, FAA inspectors monitor the wildlife strike database, looking for trends at airports.
“If they spot a trend or see something new, they might suggest to the airport that it modify its Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Plan to address a particular hazard. In addition, the Office of Airports encourages GA airports to conduct Wildlife Hazard Assessments to determine what, if any, wildlife mitigation is needed. The FAA will support GA airports by making Airport Improvement Program grants available to conduct an assessment.”
What about if you hit a federally protected or endangered animal?
The good news is that accidentally hitting a federally protected species is not a crime, said Mark Miller, a biologist for the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“There is no federal liability for the accidental killing of an endangered animal with an aircraft,” he said. “However, the intentional harassment or chasing of a federally protected, threatened or endangered species is prohibited, and pilots should take care to avoid their nesting areas when possible by a buffer of 1,000 feet or more, especially during mating season, which varies from state to state.”
According to Miller, there is no law that the pilot must notify Fish and Wildlife in the event of an animal strike, but adds it’s always appreciated so that federal officials who keep track of the animals can update their records.