NTSB: Planes At Increasing Risk From Large Birds

Tuesday, July 28th 2009, 8:03 am
By: News On 6

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Aircraft design standards aren't tough enough for planes to withstand collisions with growing numbers of large birds, safety investigators examining an Oklahoma crash that killed five men said Tuesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires the bodies of commercial aircraft to withstand a collision with a bird weighing 4 pounds or 8 pounds depending upon the section of the plane -- standards that haven't been updated since the 1970s, investigators told the National Transportation Safety Board.

3/5/2008 Related story: Plane Crash Probe Begins

An FAA advisory committee spent 10 years examining whether the standards should be updated and then disbanded without reaching a conclusion, investigators said.

"I think that ridiculous," NTSB chairman Debbie Hersman said. "That's a tremendous waste of time and expertise." She said the agency needs to be "publishing rules and getting on with what's feasible."

The board is examining the safety implications of a March 4, 2008, crash in which a business jet collided with a flock of white pelicans as it passed over a corner of Oklahoma City's Lake Overholser about two minutes after takeoff. Witnesses said they heard a noise that sounded like an engine stall, and then saw the Cessna Citation 500 plunge nose down trailing a plume of gray smoke. It crashed about four miles from Wiley Post Airport, sending up a giant fireball.

Killed were pilots Tim Hartman, 44, and Rick Sandoval, 40, and three executives with an Oklahoma engine manufacturer and its parent company: Garth Bates Jr., 59, Frank Pool Jr., 60, and Lloyd Austin, 57.

The danger of bird-aircraft collisions has received extensive scrutiny since US Airways Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River in January after striking a flock of Canada geese following takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport. The incident was dubbed the "Miracle on the Hudson" when all 155 people aboard survived.

There are many similarities between the two accidents. Both took place shortly after takeoff roughly four miles from the airport at an altitude of about 3,000. Both planes struck a flock of large, migratory birds.

Although bird populations generally are declining, nearly all large bird species have been increasing since the enactment of environmental protections in the 1960s and 1970s. Air traffic also has increased dramatically, and even though traffic is down due to the poor economy, annual takeoffs and landings in the United States are forecast to surpass 1 billion a year by 2020.

One resurgent species is the white pelican, which averages about 16 pounds but can weigh up to 30 pounds and has a wingspan that can stretch up to 9 feet.

Bird experts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington who tested feathers and "smear" from the wreckage identified the species as white pelican. Radar images from just before the crash show what are believed to a flock of birds crossing the jet's path over the lake just before the crash.