Arizona pilots beware of birds - and bats!

Posted at 6:49 PM, Apr 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-22 00:16:52-04

Call it a "night owl" - the bird that cracked the windshield of an American Airlines jet on a red eye from Las Vegas Thursday.

The plane had to be diverted to Phoenix for repairs. After a 45-minute delay, the passengers were on a new plane to their intended destination, Charlotte, N.C.

ABC15 learned it can be startling to smash into a bird mid-air. Using Embry-Riddle flight simulator, Prescott-based pilot instructors showed us how experienced pilots should be able to safely land the plane.

"It's going to happen typically closer to the ground," training manager Josh Donaldson said. 

In 2009, hero pilot "Sully" Sullenberger saved lives after a flock flew into his engines at takeoff and he made an emergency landing on the Hudson River.

Experts say there are thousands of bird strikes a year. They are much less traumatic, but can be dramatic.

Donaldson, who says he's hit two birds himself, says the noise and airplane shudder can be "very startling." He added pilots almost never see the bird early enough to maneuver out of the way. He teaches trainees not to panic.

"The first thing of course is fly the aircraft," Donaldson said.

Donaldson says small prop planes tend to have the least bird mishaps because they are noisy and birds can hear them coming. Commercial jets withstand bird strikes the best.  

"Most of the time the effect is relatively minor and the passengers, and in some cases, the crew don't even realize it happened," Donaldson said.

The Federal Aviation Administration keeps track of airplane vs. wildlife incidents using a database developed with the help of Embry-Riddle.

Arizona sees about 100 reports per year. ABC15 took a closer look at reports since April 2014. We found mourning doves are struck most often, with 51 reports. A couple of owls were hit during that time period, and another nighttime flyer also tends to collide with planes. Eight bats strikes were reported.

Of all 188 incidents examined by ABC15, just one involved "substantial" damage to the plane. It happened on July 4, 2014, when a bird was sucked into a commercial jet's engine. The plane made an immediate return to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.    

"The more we know about what kinds of birds - what species - we are hitting when and where, the better job we can do of training airport operations people to try to mitigate that issue," said David Eiker, an Embry-Riddle biologist who does outreach for the database.