This Bird Strike Reminds Us it Doesn’t Take a Missile to Down a Fighter

The possibility of taking a bird strike, especially during the terminal phases of flight around airports, or while flying at low level, is just a fact of life for aviators. Different types of aircraft that travel at different speeds, in different flight environments and with various forms of propulsion have their own unique vulnerabilities when it comest to run-ins with birds. This has resulted in specific design elements built into modern aircraft that work as countermeasures against bird strikes and engine ingestions.

For instance, fighter jets often have reinforced windscreens capable of lessening the severity of a bird strike at lower speeds, while airliners, with their big high-bypass turbofan engines, are designed to be able to ingest birds up to a particular size without flaming out. But even the most advanced engines can only ingest so much mass before realizing a catastrophic loss of power. Maybe the most famous example of this was the “Miracle On The Hudson” when Captain Sully made a successful gliding descent into the Hudson in an A320 full of passengers after ingesting geese in both of the aircraft’s engines shortly after takeoff.

High performance fighter engines, with lower bypass ratios, are more susceptible to catastrophic bird ingestions than their big high-bypass turbofan cousins. As such, fighter pilots take a particular interest in avoiding birds, especially flocks of them. But considering the speeds that these aircraft are moving at, and how busy their pilots are in the cockpit, sometimes birds cannot be avoided, as seen in the video below. In fact, even if the bird doesn’t take down the jet, the pilot’s reaction to the strike could.

An amazing example of this is the photo seen above, taken by aviation photographer, air traffic controller, and veteran AWACS crewman, Louis DePaemelaere (check out his site here), at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado. 

The picture shows one of the 120th Fighter Squadron F-16C’s blasting out of Buckley and right into a small gathering of birds, one of which had a dramatic collision with the Viper’s ALQ-131 electronic countermeasures pod mounted on its centerline station. A bit higher and the result of such a collision could have been far more severe.

The result of an F-16’s canopy meeting a bird in flight. , DoD

Although the F-16’s single-piece bubble canopy was engineered to withstand a strike from a four pound bird while traveling at 350 knots, and the Block 30 F-16C’s GE-F110 engine was designed with bird ingestion failure resistance in mind, encounters with birds can lead to quick and dramatic flight terminations for the single engine fighter, as seen in the amazing video below. And even in the case of the photo above, maybe ingesting one of these bird would not have resulted in the total loss of the aircraft, but multiple ones surely could have.

The USAF takes bird strikes very seriously, and along with air bases and co-located civilian airports that their aircraft are based at, Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) prevention programs have been put into place.

The DoD describes its BASH initiative and the need for it as such:

“Each year, civil and military aircraft strike thousands of birds. The Federal Aviation Administration annually reports at least 2,300 wildlife related strikes involving civil aircraft; the Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps report at least an additional 3,000. Strikes involving military aircraft cause in excess of $75 million in damage every year. Yet only an estimated 20 percent of actual bird strikes are reported. Because pilots and crews use the same low altitude airspace as large concentrations of birds, the prevention of bird strikes is of serious concern to the military.

DoD continually implements and improves aviation safety programs in an effort to provide the safest flying conditions possible. One of these programs is the Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) prevention program. Throughout the military, air operations, aviation safety, and natural resources personnel work together to reduce the risk of bird and wildlife strikes through the Operational Risk Management process. Development and implementation of an effective BASH program requires constant interaction between air station’s natural resources, aviation safety, and air operations communities as well as the pilots and aircrews. Habitat modifications and scaring birds away from the runways is an integral part of the answer, but understanding the behavior and movements of birds in relation to the airfield environment and military training routes by pilots and aircrews is also a critical factor in reducing bird strikes.”

“Knowing what types of birds and animals are using the airfield environment throughout the year is critical to reducing BASH risks. A Wildlife Hazard Assessment will identify areas of the airfield that are attractive to wildlife and provide recommendations to remove or modify the attractive feature. Corrective recommendations may include removing unused airfield equipment to eliminate perch sites, placing anti-perching devices on equipment to remain, wiring streams and ponds, brush/tree removal, the use of pyrotechnics, or changing the grass mowing program.

By identifying the bird species involved and the location of the strike, researchers and airport managers can better understand why the species is attracted to a particular area of the airport or training route. To identify birds involved in strike events, remains of the birds must be collected and turned in for analysis. If the remains are only snarge (blood, bits of tissue, and goo) or feather fragments, these are sent to the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian Feather Identification Lab can do DNA analysis on blood samples as well as microscopic feather analysis. Using a feather bank developed for the military and civilian aviation communities, the Smithsonian Institution can analyze the micro-structure of the barbs from the sample to narrow down a bird involved in a birdstrike event to species. In knowing the species of bird involved in a birdstrike event, managers can investigate the habitat and food habits of the species and begin the process of reducing or eliminating the attractants.”

Technology is also advancing BASH risk reduction effectiveness. Radar ornithology uses radar images obtained from the National Weather Service’s WSR-88D Doppler radar or mobile radar units to track migrating birds and important stopover areas. GIS layers of bird radar activity can be layered with actual low level route information along with historic birdstrike data. Some of the tools using radar technology include the Bird Avoidance Model (BAM), Avian Hazard Advisory System (AHAS), and mobile marine radars that are implemented at the airfield.”

So yeah, BASH is not just about telling pilots to watch out because it’s migrations season, it is much more scientific than that and the technology being garnered from it will continue to have a positive impact on both military aircraft and civilian aircraft operational safety.  

Contact the author

Tyler Rogoway Avatar

Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.