Bird strikes serious problem at airports

Friday, March 16, 2007

Passengers afraid their plane was going to crash in Chicago Thursday night are now safely in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The United Airlines pilot made an emergency landing after an engine caught fire. The problem: birds were sucked into the engine.

United Flight 843, which was headed to Sao Paulo, Brazil, when it hit the large flock of birds around 9:15 p.m. Several of them were sucked up into the engine on the plane's left side. Exactly what kind of birds it struck is unknown, but the birds were big enough -- and there were enough of them -- that they shut down on of the 767's two engines and caused a fire. The FAA found bird tissues and feathers in the second engine as well. However, it was not impaired.

The pilot brought the plane back to O'Hare without incident. But, there were some tense moments onboard.

"There was a flash of light. An extremely large noise, and everything started to shudder," said Douglas Nixon, Flight 843 Passenger

Home video of Flight 843 shows fire coming from the left engine, which the pilot shut down. Just as passengers on board were alarmed and initially unsure of what had happened, so too were witnesses on the ground.

"It looked like half a mile, then the fire seems to stop and continue out over the lake," said Jim McKay, witness.

"I watched that plane do this for four or five minutes. It was going straight east, then all the sudden he veered to the left and I was saying 'I hope this thing does not go down.' It was a frightening experience to hear this," said Ed Fontana, witness

The flight to Sao Paulo Brazil had to wait until Friday morning before resuming. By a strange coincidence, two years ago, the same flight - a United 767 bound for Sao Paulo had to return to O'Hare after it ran into a flock of birds.

The problem of birds hitting planes, of course, goes beyond Brazil-bound United flights. The number of bird strikes has increased in recent years, and airports nationwide are continually refining methods to make birds feel unwelcome.

O'Hare uses propane powered noise cannons, and pyrotechnics among other techniques. In Fort Myers, Florida, simply letting this Border collie run free has lessoned bird strikes. But there are no surefire methods. Pilots train in simulators for the likelihood of a bird encounter.

Most bird strikes don't cause much damage. But a bird over four pounds - ingested in an engine - can choke it, cause a fire and some anxious moments.

"You're thinking this is it. But fortunately it was not," said Nixon. Nixon praised the pilot for keeping the cabin calm.

O'Hare a couple years ago started using a grape-smelling mist that its staff biologists had sprayed around airport grounds. The thought was that the birds wouldn't like it because it would be something akin to how humans don't like smelling ammonia. But the grape mist didn't have much affect on the birds.

There has been some work done with a bird radar system - called Birdar.

"There would be a radar operator detecting the locations of birds, storing it and putting it on a display somewhere," said Carl Krasnor, SiCom Systems.

Over the years, birds and planes have met in the air at an increasing rate. In Illinois in 1990 it happened 104 times. Last year, the number of collisions tripled. Nationally, the increase is even greater: 2,000 incidents in 1990, compared to nearly 8,000 last year.

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