It started in 1965 as a tiny research project. But over the years, the FAA’s wildlife program has grown wings and taken off – with the National Wildlife Strike Database (wildlife.faa.gov) serving as a one-stop shop for researchers and aviators looking to reduce and/or avoid potentially hazardous wildlife at or near airports.
The database supports both strategic planning and tactical prevention. It serves as a tool for the creation, development and monitoring of airport wildlife hazard management plans. Additionally, the FAA publishes an analysis report on cumulative strike data within the database, offering aviation stakeholders accurate, searchable data for specific wildlife analyses. This database is funded and managed by the Office of Airports and the Airport Technology Research and Development Branch located at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Jan. 15 marked the 10th anniversary of the "miracle on the Hudson," where US Airways Flight 1549 crash-landed in the Hudson River after the aircraft struck a flock of Canada geese and lost both engines shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport. With Capt. Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles at the controls of the aircraft, all 150 passengers and five crewmembers survived.
As the most significant wildlife strike in recent aviation history, Flight 1549 reinforced the real threat of birds and other wildlife to aircraft. It redefined the way the FAA and its partners collaborate in wildlife-strike reporting, wildlife detection and deterrence at airports and in the airspace, and bird species identification.
“Everything we do is pre- or post-Flight 1549; that’s the reality of it,” said FAA National Wildlife Biologist John Weller, who joined the agency just two weeks after the accident. “When that happened, we took a hard look at our wildlife program here; the National Transportation Safety Board had recommendations for us based on their accident investigation; and the [Department of Transportation's] Office of the Inspector General conducted an audit of our program.”
In the wake of the accident, the FAA worked tirelessly with its government partners, namely the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services and Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Laboratory, and with academia to expand its wildlife-strike mitigation program. Funded by the Office of Airports and Airport Technology Research and Development Branch, the USDA conducts research at its National Wildlife Research Center in Sandusky, Ohio, at partner field stations, and at airports to reduce wildlife hazards to aviation.
This research funding has allowed the FAA and USDA to research, evaluate and communicate the effectiveness of various habitat management and wildlife control techniques for minimizing wildlife strikes to aircraft. These research activities provide a scientific basis for updating and creating FAA policies, regulations and recommendations for improved airport safety. One example is concerted work between the National Wildlife Research Center and Purdue University to study the visual capabilities of birds so that specialized on-aircraft lighting can improve animal perceptibility of approaching aircraft and give animals increased time to avoid collisions.
Following the Flight 1549 incident, the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab that identifies bird species struck by aircraft has experienced a major spike in reported strikes. FAA funding has allowed the lab to add molecular tools and improve its DNA processing.
The FAA received 14,496 strike reports in 2017, the most of any year, and the public-facing database eclipsed 200,000 reports in summer 2018. Each strike report contains the location and time of the strike, where the animal struck the aircraft, and much more data. The report may include animal remains, ranging from a single downy feather to tissue and blood samples called “snarge.” Managed by the Airport Technology R&D Branch, the database serves as an awareness tool in helping airports and aviation professionals identify trends in strike data so they can strategically avoid potential wildlife threats year-round.Flight 1549 underscored the importance of a robust wildlife-strike reporting program at the FAA. In 1965, the agency began collecting strike reports from airlines, airports, air traffic controllers and other sources, but many of the early reports lacked useful information for identifying trends in strikes. In 1990, the agency formalized its strike-reporting process and created wildlife.faa.gov, the most comprehensive database in the world. Although strike reporting is voluntary, Flight 1549 spurred a drastic spike in reporting due to industry awareness and the FAA’s outreach/education program, which has steadily increased since then.
“Reaching 200,000 strikes doesn’t mean there have been more bird strikes against aircraft; it means that people are more aware of the database and more proactive with reporting,” said Ryan King, program manager with the Airport Technology R&D Branch, which supports the Office of Airport Safety and Standards. “In fact, analysis shows that damaging strikes have decreased. The database is helping people who have the job of keeping birds away from planes do their job better. Those large birds that damage planes can be strategically and specifically mitigated, and data is showing there is a reduction in strikes from large species.”
The database is also helping aircraft engineers design aircraft in ways that limit damage caused by strikes. “Aircraft and engine manufacturers are using the database to see exactly where on the engine or aircraft is being struck so they can modify that design accordingly,” said Mike DiPilato, airport research specialist with the Airport Technology R&D Branch.
A continuing partnership for safety
The FAA and USDA work hand-in-hand to reduce wildlife strikes.
At hundreds of airports, USDA wildlife biologists take measures to reduce the hazards. These specialized biologists use various methods, including: habitat control (creating a landscape that is unattractive to potentially hazardous animals); trapping and relocating animals; and applying sounds, chemical methods that reduce wildlife foraging and use of some airfield habitats, and visual cues in the airport environment to ward off birds and other hazardous wildlife.
“In 1990, they had to close the airport at one point because they were having a horrific problem with gulls; there were too many birds in the airspace,” Boggs said. “That’s why I was one of the people hired at the time. The problem has since been mitigated.”Chris Boggs of USDA Wildlife Services has been addressing wildlife hazards at Atlantic City Airport for 27 years. He began his career as one of a handful of wildlife biologists of his kind along the East Coast and has spearheaded several initiatives to deter wildlife from the airport. In 1991, he was part of a team that implemented insect control and grass management to make the airport less appealing to laughing gulls. Later he was part of another team that had a perimeter fence constructed to keep deer off the runways.
Boggs and other wildlife biologists rely on the FAA database to identify trends in the species most responsible for strikes against aircraft at their respective airport. “It’s one very important slice of data we can utilize,” Boggs said. “Let’s say you’re going to an airport for the first time and you don’t know anything about it; the strike database tells you what kinds of species and problems they are dealing with so you can tailor your mitigation strategies to that specific species.”
Boggs’ colleague, Travis DeVault, works on the research side of wildlife-strike mitigation at the National Wildlife Research Center’s Ohio Field Station. DeVault has led several studies over the years and is tapping into the FAA database to estimate risk scores for birds.
“We’re looking at what are the most hazardous species and how frequently they present a threat to aircraft,” DeVault said. “We used the strike database to calculate risk that could be standardized across the United States.”
A paper recently published by DeVault and his USDA colleagues said they extracted 69,814 wildlife strike records for 2010–2015 from the database and “found substantial overlap among the top five riskiest species locally across three of four airports considered, illustrating the degree of site-specific differences that affect risk.”
Additionally, DeVault’s team is looking at how land use around airports – including vegetation, water and the handling of municipal trash – influences the strike rate. And with their Purdue University colleagues they are conducting cutting-edge research to develop aircraft lighting recommendations to alert and deter birds and other wildlife from aircraft. Last year, the team of biologists published a complete lighting recommendation for the brown-headed cowbird, a species involved in strikes against aircraftas shown in the database and representative in behavior of a larger group of similar species. The study revealed that these birds significantly avoid certain red and blue LED lights.
“The bottom line is the strike database is really valuable for what we do on the research side of things,” DeVault said. “We need that reliable data.”
Birds of a feather
The Smithsonian Institution is a key FAA partner that helps to ensure thestrike data is accurate. At the Feather ID Lab, located at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., biologists examine samples of bird remains – provided by civilian strike reporters and the U.S. military – through a variety of methods to identify species responsible for strikes.
The lab comprises about 85 percent of the world’s approximately 10,000 species of birds, including all hazardous kinds. Biologists there are able to examine a single downy feather under a microscope or extract DNA from snarge for lab testing to identify species.
“In 2018, we identified another 4,500 strikes for the Air Force and close to 1,000 for the Navy, so we’re right around 10,000 identifications a year,” said Carla Dove, a forensic ornithologist and the lab’s program manager.From 2008 to 2018, the lab experienced a 459 percent spike in identification cases for the FAA – from 787 to 4,478 – in large part due to the reporting uptick after Flight 1549. Since that event, the lab has improved its molecular identification methods; gender typing of birds, which helps in the design of safer plane engines; and case tracking via barcodes. The lab also helps the NTSB rule out birds in aviation accidents.
Dove led the effort in identifying feathers collected from Flight 1549. While all samples collected from that particular bird strike were proven to be from Canada geese, the investigation revealed some surprises.
“There were other things in the engine,” Dove said. “There was a songbird and a duck, indicating that these birds were involved in previous strikes but were not discovered or reported.
“The whole idea is if you know what the species are, then you know why they are coming into your airfield. Most of the bird strikes happen at takeoff and landing, so if you can do something in that immediate environment to keep the birds from wanting to come in there, then you can go a long way in reducing the risks and damage caused by birds.”
Dove said it’s always a challenge to stay ahead of bird strikes, especially as U.S. skies become busier. “As long as birds and humans are flying, there are going to be collisions,” she said. “But we have learned a lot about how to reduce those risks.”