Evaluating cost, risks of bird strike

While birds, mammals and airplanes may seem to peacefully share the space at and around airports, their co-existence is burdened with extreme risk. The birds have the potential to cause severe damage, leading in some cases to the loss of the aircraft, its crew and passengers, writes, WOLE SHADARE


On January 15, 2009, a US Airways aircraft took off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. Two minutes after take-off, the plane was struck by a flock of geese and lost all engine power.

With no option to reach an airport, the pilot expertly landed the aircraft on the city’s Hudson River, saving every person on board. The incident became known as the ‘miracle on the Hudson’.

 It was only a few birds that had caused the catastrophic failure of both jet engines that day.

Bird strike can occur during any phase of flight, but the most vulnerable times are take-off, ascent, decent and landing, as birds fly at low altitude.

Bird strikes cannot be completely prevented, but the careful planning and implementation of dedicated systems may help to reduce these accidents.

The nature of the effect of a bird strike on an aeroplane depends on the size of the aircraft. Smaller aircraft will most likely experience structural damage such as damage to control surfaces or flight deck windscreens.


Aircraft hit by birds

Large aeroplanes powered by jet engines usually experience engine malfunction due to birds connecting with the engines. Jet engines are extremely vulnerable to bird strikes. Even the malfunction of one engine may compromise the safety of passengers and crew onboard.


In Nigeria, it is not different as airline operators have continued to lament the horrible situation of birds that hit particularly engines of their aircraft causing substantial damage to their equipment and costing them huge sums to fix.

Although, bird strike is synonymous with flight operations in Nigeria, the incidents of past weeks have brought the matter to the fore when a Lagos bound Aero Contractors flight returned to Kano after one of the engines of the aircraft was hit by bird during take-off in what is popularly known as bird strike.

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A bird strike—sometimes called birdstrike, bird ingestion (for an engine), bird hit, or bird aircraft strike hazard is a collision between an airborne animal (usually a bird or bats) and a moving vehicle, usually an aircraft.

Bird strikes are a significant threat to flight safety, and have caused a number of accidents with human casualties. There are over 13,000 bird strikes annually in the US alone.

However, the number of major accidents involving civil aircraft is quite low and it has been estimated that there is only about one accident resulting in human death in one billion flying hours.

Aero, Max’s incidents

A day after Aero’s incident, A Max Air’s Abuja bound aircraft suffered a bird strike ten minutes after take-off at the Aminu Kano International Airport, (MAKIA), forcing the aircraft to return to Kano. Among the passengers was the Emir of Kano, Aminu Ado-Bayero.

The Max Air B737 plane with registration number VM1645 which was slated for take-off 1.30 pm had about a 30 minutes delay. The aircraft later took off around 2:00 pm with passengers with full passenger load.

It was discovered that the aircraft engine was hit by a bird during take-off, affecting some of the blades of the aircraft engine, forcing the captain of the aircraft to make air-return, a standard practice in aviation to forestall accident.

Investigation shows that bird strike incidents usually affect the engines of aircraft, which costs about $1 million to replace, depending on the type and capacity of the aircraft involved in the incident. This is apart from the cost of shipping the engine into the country.

There are said to be at least 10 bird strike incidents, affecting Nigerian carriers yearly in the aviation industry.

Bird strike menace at airports

Virtually all models of air planes including the classics and NextGen operating in the country had been affected by bird strikes.

Astronomic figures

Further investigation indicated that in the last 22 months, there have been at least 30 bird strike incidents in the industry; 19 on take-off and another 18 on landing, and half of these incidents took place at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, (MMA), Lagos. There are some others that went unreported.

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Although no accident has been recorded in Nigeria as a result of bird strike, not less than 210 people have been killed worldwide due to bird-strikes with aircraft since 1988.

The worst bird strike in aviation history occurred in 1960 when an Eastern Airlines propeller driven Lockheed L-188 Electra crashed into the sea while attempting to take off from Logan Airport.

Sixty-two people tragically lost their lives, with only 10 people surviving, after a flock of up to 20,000 starlings suddenly flew into the path of the aircraft, and hundreds of the birds were ingested into the engines.

Consequently, two of the four engines lost power, a third flamed-out resulting in a quick crash.

Counting the costs

Bird-strikes to aircraft result in some $610 million in damage a year globally. Five jet-airliners have had major accidents involving bird-strikes since 1975. Experts estimate that only about 20 percent of all bird strikes are reported.

On September 27,  2017,  an  Air  Asia  Flight  from  Medan,  Indonesia to Penang was forced to return to Medan after a bird  was sucked  into one  of  its engines.  The airliner was carrying 150   passengers.

There were a couple more such incidents reported in Malaysia in 2016 and 2017. On January 15, 2009, a US Airways jet  hit a  flock  of  geese shortly after  it  took off from LaGuardia  Airport  in  New York and  was  forced  to  land in the Hudson River.

Reports indicated no deaths, nor serious injuries. The birds were sucked into both engines causing   the engines to fail.  The 112,815 who reported bird and wildlife strikes in the last 20 years may not have seriously considered the damages that could result.

Additionally, the actual number of strikes is probably much larger; experts estimate that about 80 percent of them go unreported.  If this estimate  is  accurate, in  20  years  there  may  have  been  more  than  500,000  strikes.

With increased  air traffic,  and  rising  bird-populations,  such a threat  is becoming more  serious. In Civil  Aviation  alone  till  1974,  130 deaths  had been  reported worldwide  to  the International  Civil  Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Due  to  the  voluntary  nature  of  civil  aviation bird–strike  reporting,  a  great deal  of  under reporting happens, occurs, especially  for  minor  bird  strikes.

Conservative  estimates  suggest  that  more routine  damage  and  delays  following  bird-strikes  cost the industry  and  its  insurers  $1.2-1.5  billion  per  year.

Experts’ views

Speaking on the issue in an interview with our correspondent, a pilot with one of the leading airlines, who preferred anonymity, said that Nigerian airlines lose billions of naira to bird strike incidents annually.

He, however, regretted that despite the huge loss, FAAN, with its Department of Wildlife Control, had not adopted modern technology to reduce the threat in any of the nation’s airports.

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He explained that in order to control the assault on aircraft, the government must identify species of birds that create the problems for airlines, those things that attract birds to the airport and acquire modern equipment that would reduce their activities at the nation’s airports.

He noted that of all the airports in the country, only very few have been able to control bird activities with the acquisition of equipment, which sends away birds around the path of aircraft.

He urged FAAN to take a cue from the Uyo Airport management in order to improve safety to aircraft and other equipment at the airside.

His words: “No attempt has ever been made to avert this hazard in the country. Our approach to the menace has to be forensic because you need to know the kinds of birds that are coming around.

“When that is established, you need to know what attracts them. It is so deep and a lot of people who work in wildlife here just scratch the surface. They are not helping the airlines.


Windshield of an aircraft destroyed by a bird

“The airlines are losing millions of dollars. Like the one that happened to us recently before the last one, it cost us about $1.5 million dollars to replace an engine and once you have a bird injection, the first thing you get flying an airplane is the smoke like roasted chicken. Once you get that, you have to come down because you actually don’t know the extent of the damage.”

Another source close to one of the airlines, who didn’t want his name in print, also said that a typical bird strike could affect the aircraft, which costs about $400,000 to replace, windscreen, $10,000 and also the air frame of an aircraft.

Last line

Efforts have been made to understand bird-behaviour, and bird-migration. Many factors, including climate, airport surroundings,  and  airport  location  in  relation  to  Migratory pathways play  a  part  in  bird  strike  rates.

Wole Shadare