There was early speculation that a collision with birds caused yesterday’s crash of American Airlines Flight 587. If so, it would be the worst such accident in aviation history.
The Airbus A300 took off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and broke into flames shortly after becoming airborne. An engine fell off the jet before the plane crashed into a group of homes in the Rockaway area of Queens not far from Jamaica Bay.
All 260 on board apparently died in the tragedy. The number of casualties on the ground was still being calculated late yesterday.
“It’s entirely possible that striking birds can bring down a jetliner,” said Richard Dolbeer, a Department of Agriculture research biologist.
Mr. Dolbeer chairs the Bird Strike Committee-USA, which tracks bird strike incidents and helps find ways to avoid them. The group is composed of representatives from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and the aviation industry.
In fact, birds have demolished large aircraft, Mr. Dolbeer points out. A survey of press accounts reveals that the worst single accident occurred in 1995, when an Air Force AWACS plane flying out of Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska struck four Canada geese. The plane crashed, killing 24 persons.
Statistics compiled by Mr. Dolbeer’s committee show that a 10-pound Canada goose ramming a plane that’s taking off or landing at 150 miles per hour exerts a force equal to 1,000 pounds dropped from the height of 10 feet. No jet engine made can withstand such impact, Mr. Dolbeer says.
Some 33,000 bird-aircraft hits were reported between 1990 and 2000. According to the committee, however, 80 percent of bird strikes go unreported.
Last year the Air Force reported that its planes had 3,100 bird strikes. U.S. civilian planes had 5,800 reported strikes in the same period.
Among the serious bird-plane encounters this year was one at Oregon’s Portland International Airport in January. A herring gull flew into a McDonald-Douglas MD-11 jet’s No. 3 engine as the craft was taking off. The engine cowling blew away and the engine shredded. The pilot aborted the takeoff, blowing two tires, but the 217 passengers were uninjured.
At Detroit Metropolitan Airport in April several snow geese struck the left engine of a Boeing 757-200 as the plane was climbing from liftoff. The engine caught fire and smoke entered the cabin, but the crew landed the plane safely.
In June an Airbus A300 landing at Newark International hit as many as 10 geese but landed safely despite the damage. Likewise in June, a Canada goose swept into the No. 2 engine of another Airbus A300 shortly after the plane took off. The engine was demolished. That plane also landed without further incident.
Airbus 300s are reportedly the most numerous mid-size airliners, which may explain why more A300s seem to be involved in bird-strike incidents than other kinds of aircraft.
“Bird strikes occur at virtually every major airport especially at coastal airports and especially at this time of year, when the bird population is greatest,” said Mr. Dolbeer.
He explained that in the summer the birds breed, bringing their population to a peak in September, October and November. After winter sets in, many of the older and less-resilient birds die, diminishing flocks.