Flight Risks Rise as Bird Strikes Increase

New records obtained by the NBC4 I-Team show the number of reported bird strikes is on the rise all across the country

Grant Cardone thought the takeoff of his flight from JFK to LAX would make a great video for his family, so he held his iPad up to the plane's window to document the spectacular sight of a beautiful day over New York.

What he captured made him think this might be his last flight.

"I am hearing what sounds like a Volkswagen Beetle regurgitated by this Boeing engine.  The next thing I smell is burning animal," said Cardone.

A flock of birds flew into the engines and, within minutes, the pilot had declared an emergency, turning to land the stricken jet back in New York.

Now new records obtained by the NBC4 I-team show the number of reported bird strikes is on the rise all across the country. In Southern California the numbers increased at LAX, Long Beach, and John Wayne.  Since 2008, the number of reported bird strikes is up 178 percent at LAX, 501 percent at Long Beach and 139 percent at John Wayne.

Still, the experts are quick to point out it is still a rare event. Of more than 600,000 flights at LAX last year, pilots reported 119 instances of birds colliding with planes.

The location of Los Angeles International Airport may be part of the problem.   On its west side sits Dockweiler State Beach and on its north edge sits the Westchester Golf Course, both havens for fowl.

"Golf courses are perfect breeding grounds for birds," said USC Aviation expert Mike Barr. "(They) have everything a bird wants."

Only in rare instances have birds severely damaged a jetliner. The most famous case is that of US Air Flight 1549 -- as it took off from La Guardia Airport, a flock of Canada geese was pulled into both of the plane's engines, rendering them useless and forcing pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger to pull off a near miraculous landing in the Hudson River.

"The Hudson bird strike was a flock of birds that went into both engines and the odds to have that have to be a million to one," said Barr.

Still, the so called "Miracle on the Hudson" raised  awareness of the potential hazard of birds, and in part may account for the rise in the number of reported strikes.  Biologists said another factor may be an increase in bird populations around the world.

The highest number of bird strikes is reported in fly zones of migratory birds, mostly along the East and West Coasts, and through the Mississippi River Valley.

It's enough for the FAA to demand airports take steps to manage wildlife on their properties.   Barr audits the programs at Southern California Airports, and said their efforts are excellent.

Todd Pitlik is a biologist that keeps track of wildlife at LAX, Long Beach, and John Wayne.  He uses everything from traps to pyrotechnics to reduce the number of birds at the air fields.

"We're so in tune with what's going on here, whenever we see a sharp increase in certain birds or certain activities, we're on it right away,” said Pitlik.

The same may not be true at other U.S. airports.   NBC5 in Dallas reports the FAA has instructed Love Field to immediately address a threat posed by gulls and ducks.

"Frankly, most airports are simply ignoring the problem and hoping nothing happens," said bird strike control expert Nick Carter.

Barr said it is inevitable that birds and jets will occasionally collide.

"We can’t think of every bird strike as Armageddon," he said. "The odds are one in a million that this will cause enough damage to an airplane to bring it down."

The odds don't mean much to Grant Cardone.

"Every take off now I wonder am I at risk."

Phil Drechsler produced the broadcast report for NBC4.

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