On Jan. 15, 2009, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger piloted U.S. Airways Flight 1549 from LaGuardia Airport and struck a flock of Canada geese, demolishing both engines and forcing the plane to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River.
A decade (and a movie) later, aviation and wildlife experts say there have been significant improvements to the way airports protect themselves from wildlife strikes, which have killed more than 282 people globally since 1988 and cause an estimated $1.2 billion in damage each year.
But they also warn that there’s still lots of work to be done.
The Miracle on the Hudson was far from the only bird strike in American history, said Carla Dove, a forensic ornithologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History whose team conducts forensic analyses of strike remains to determine the species involved.
Famed aviator Orville Wright reported the first American bird strike in 1905, Dove said. The first fatality occurred seven years later, when pilot Calbraith Rodgers hit a gull while flying over Long Beach, California. In October 1960, 62 people died after a Lockheed L-188A Electra hit a flock of starlings just seconds after taking off from Boston’s Logan Airport, the deadliest strike to date.
All of those events drew public attention to the issue, Dove told The Daily Beast—but the Miracle on the Hudson “really made people pay attention.” Dove estimated that her lab has seen a 400 percent uptick in wildlife submissions since the Miracle on the Hudson.
Mike Begier, the national coordinator of the USDA’s Airport Wildlife Hazards Program and the manager of the FAA’s National Wildlife Strike Database, a record of all reported wildlife strikes, can attest to this. Data from the FAA’s and USDA’s 2016 report on the database shows that in 2008, only 7,444 strikes were reported on civil aircraft. But in 2016, the most recent year for which data was available, airports reported 13,234 strikes—a 56 percent increase in under a decade.
Airports need reports like those from Dove’s lab to help Begier’s USDA biologists stationed at most commercial airports to make better-informed recommendations to airport officials when it comes to keeping birds away from specific airspaces.
If a biologist learned that an airport was struggling with water fowl strikes, for example, they could tell airport officials to fix drainage structures around the airspace to reduce the amount of standing water, Begier said. If an airport kept reporting bald eagle strikes, on the other hand, the biologist could recommend removing the tall, wide trees where the birds typically roost.
The FAA has chipped in, too. Although the administration could not make a representative available for an interview due to the government shutdown, a spokesperson said that the FAA has allocated approximately $350 million in Airport Improvement funds to wildlife-related projects since the Miracle on the Hudson, provided an additional $25 million for wildlife mitigation research, and mandated that all commercial airports develop wildlife management plans.
These efforts have made a difference. In the past decade, the populations of many of the birds most hazardous to planes have increased. That, combined with the increase in reporting, should have caused an uptick in damaging strikes. But instead, the number of damaging strikes close to airports (less than 1500 feet above the ground) has remained relatively constant.
“We’re always going to have bird strikes, as long as we’re all flying around,” Dove said. “But [the uptick in reporting] really seems to have made a big impact on reducing the damaging bird strikes that we’ve had in the past.”
Unfortunately, that’s just half the problem. Making LaGuardia’s airspace less hospitable to Canadian geese wouldn’t have done anything to stop the strike that precipitated the Miracle on the Hudson. LaGuardia had a robust goose control program around their airspace at the time, Dove explained—but the plane wasn’t anywhere near the airspace when the geese struck. It was nearly five miles away, and thousands of feet in the air.
“Even though they had a wonderful program in place, there’s no way they could have predicted this or prevented this,” Dove said.
Figuring out how to control flocks that are far away from local airspaces, she said, is the major challenge that remains. “We need a way to find these large flocks of migratory birds,” she added, “birds that fly around at high elevation.”
Begier agrees. “We’ve seen a slight increase in damaging events away from airports,” he said. “That concerns us.”
There is hope. Around the time of the Miracle on the Hudson, Begier and his team at the USDA Wildlife Services National Wildlife Research Center realized something important: Most birds try to fly away from planes before they’re hit—they just don’t have enough time to escape.
In a 2010 paper published in The International Journal of Avian Science, the Center studied the frozen corpses of 92 birds that had been killed, or were presumed to be killed, by wildlife strikes at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport between 2000 and 2001. Researchers found that injuries most frequently occurred on the rear part of the bird, on its underside, or on its left half—and that those locations matched logically with where the birds would have been hit if they were trying to avoid a predator at the last second.
Given the size and sound of a commercial jet plane, it’s a bit incredible to think that birds don’t have enough forewarning that they should get out of the way. But Begier noted that technological advances have made planes both faster and quieter, and birds haven’t yet evolved enough to perceive them in time.
There might be a way to fix that. After years of experimenting, a group of scientists from the USDA Wildlife Services National Wildlife Research Center and Purdue University found a frequency and wavelength of pulsing light that catches the attention of brown-headed cowbirds, a type of blackbird that was involved in a deadly wildlife strike in Atlanta in 1973.
According to a 2015 paper the team published in The American Ornithological Society’s The Condor, a light pulsing at 2hz at a wavelength of 470nm (what humans would perceive as blue), helped the birds respond more quickly to an approaching remote-controlled aircraft.
Begier likened the sensation to a fluorescent light in an office building. Most of the time, he said, humans don’t notice the flickering of those lights—because they’re calibrated to a frequency and wavelength that doesn’t disturb us. But when one of those lights is broken and the frequency changes, it’s immediately obvious.
“That light seems to be flickering around us,” he added. “That’s what we’re after.”
The research is still in its early stages. The next step, Begier said, is to determine if that frequency and wavelength similarly disturbs other problematic birds, like water fowl or raptors. If those birds respond to the same type of light as the cowbirds, the team may be able to move forward. But if not, Begier cautioned, they could be out of luck.
There’s other ideas, too. Aviation officials are also looking into bird radar, to help warn pilots about upcoming flocks. There’s already technology to monitor the movements of large flocks—which Begier likens to a weather radar—but he said that it’s not yet possible to identify what kind of birds make up that flock.
“Not all flocks are equal, when it comes to safety,” Begier said. An oncoming flock of geese, as the Miracle on the Hudson demonstrated, would be a major problem. A flock of robins? Not so much.
That technology, too, is in its early stages. But Begier remains hopeful about both possibilities—and proud of the work that’s been done to make both airspaces and the open skies safer for passengers and birds alike.
“Sometimes I think people think ‘big blue sky, there’s nothing we can do, it’s an act of God, it’s wildlife,’” he said. “But these things can be managed—if the data gets reported, if we have the identification of the bird—then we can use our training and we can make a difference.”
To learn more about the work that's been done in the past decade, tune in to BIRD VS. PLANE: MIRACLE ON THE HUDSON, which premieres tonight, January 15 at 9 p.m. on Smithsonian Channel.