Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bird-Plane Collisions Skyrocketing

In January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 lost power to its engines and made an emergency water landing in the Hudson River. And the reason given for the engine failure? Birds. Canada Geese, to be exact.

At 3:27pm, oddly using the incorrect call sign "Cactus 1539", the cockpit radioed air traffic controllers at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON). Their transmission: "Hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. Returning back towards LaGuardia."

According to news reports, the passengers and cabin crew reported hearing "very loud bangs" coming from both engines, and subsequently seeing flaming exhaust and smelling fuel in the cabin.

Now, just a year later, USA Today and the AP are stating that "reports of airplanes hitting birds and other wildlife have soared" since then. So why the increase in bird strikes? Some officials are saying it's because the incidents are simply being reported more diligently, while other are actually claiming that bird populations are suddenly getting out of hand.

According to the AP article:

After US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson on Jan. 15, the AP asked the government for its data, including details about more than 93,000 strikes since 1990. Even after the FAA agreed to turn over the records to the AP, it quietly proposed a new federal rule to keep the information secret until Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood intervened and ordered the release. LaHood recently included the disclosure in a list of the department's leading safety accomplishments for last year.

"Going public doesn't appear to have harmed it, and every indicator I have is we have an increased industry awareness on the importance of reporting," said Kate Lang, FAA acting associate administrator for airports, in an interview.

Why on Earth would the FAA want to keep data on duck collisions classified in the first place?

Historically, bird strikes have been a convenient excuse to explain away damage sustained by civilian and military aircraft under enemy fire. The most notable example is probably in the book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. There, it was revealed that the Kennedy White House quietly asked an Air Force Captain to conceal that his fleet had been fired upon by Cuban anti-aircraft guns, and that the pockmarks and bulletholes were caused by bird strikes.

In so doing, Kennedy supposedly helped prevent World War III, because had it become public knowledge that Russian-backed Cubans were firing shots at our planes, we would have been forced to retaliate and thus escalate the situation to the point of Russia using the nuclear missiles it was stockpiling in Cuba.

So could modern air pilots be concealing something by playing the "bird strikes" card today? What might that be?

Unmanned Miniature Drones have been on the rise at about the same timeframe and rate of growth as the rising statistics on bird strikes. They can range from plane-sized to bird-sized to even insect sized.

Not only Micro Air Vehicles on their way to being insect sized, DARPA is also experimenting with, believe it or not, Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, which are "tightly coupled machine-insect interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis".

Israel is flying mini-drones over the West Bank, and Harvard and NASA are working on ones that travel in swarms and can communicate with each other. And they're also working on underwater ones and nuclear-powered ones.

And then there's the Entomopter. And the Ornithopter.

The old, conventional, plane-sized unmanned drones, which have probably been responsible for more than a few UFO sightings, may soon become outmoded as the new breed of mini-drones and micro-drones take over. For now, new large models such as the RQ-170 Sentinel are still in production even as research and development is happening fast on tiny ones.

And then there's the mysterious miniature blue cloud that flitted around a Parma, Ohio gas station in 2007. The cloud, which moved around almost like a sentient being, was recorded by the gas station's security video.

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