A Constant Threat to Aircraft: Can a bird strike a plane at night?

Bird strikes pose a significant threat to aircraft safety, and many questions have arisen regarding the possibility of birds colliding with planes during nighttime flights. Recent incidents, such as a bird hitting the engine of a Fly Dubai flight from Kathmandu at night, have sparked suspicions and raised concerns about the occurrence of bird strikes after dark. This article aims to shed light on this topic, exploring the occurrence of bird strikes at night, their potential consequences, and measures to mitigate these risks.

Contrary to popular belief, birds can indeed strike planes at night. While most bird strikes occur during daylight hours, approximately one-third of such incidents happen after sunset. Nocturnal bird species are the primary culprits involved in collisions with aircraft during nighttime operations.

Bird strikes pose a significant risk to aviation safety, and while these incidents often occur during daylight hours, there is a growing concern regarding bird strikes at night. According to recent data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the number of reported bird strikes during nighttime operations has witnessed a worrying upward trend. In 2022 alone, there were 743 reported bird strikes during night flights, representing a 27% increase compared to the previous year. This increase in nocturnal bird strikes highlights the need for enhanced safety measures and greater awareness within the aviation industry.

Several factors contribute to the heightened risk of bird strikes at night. One major factor is the limited visibility for pilots, making it challenging to detect birds and take evasive action promptly. Moreover, nocturnal birds, such as owls and nighthawks, are more active during nighttime hours, leading to an increased likelihood of encountering them in the airspace. Furthermore, the use of artificial lighting around airports can attract birds, increasing the probability of collisions. To address this growing concern, aviation authorities and airport operators must collaborate to develop comprehensive strategies, including improved lighting technologies, enhanced pilot training on bird strike avoidance, and the implementation of radar systems that can detect birds even in low light conditions. By prioritizing these measures, the aviation industry can minimize the risks associated with bird strikes at night and ensure safer skies for all.

Instances of birds hitting planes are not uncommon. For instance, an American Airlines flight bound for Phoenix was forced to return to the airport in Columbus, Ohio, due to a bird strike. The engine of the aircraft caught fire, underscoring the potential dangers associated with these collisions.

Similarly, after the Champions League semi-final in Wolfsburg, a fire broke out on a plane carrying the Arsenal women’s team back to London when a bird struck one of the engines. As the Boeing 737 prepared for takeoff at Braunschweig Wolfsburg Airport in Germany, a loud noise followed the impact, igniting the engine and emphasizing the vulnerability of aircraft to bird strikes, even during night operations.

To reduce the risk of bird strikes, aircraft manufacturers recommend implementing various measures. One such measure is the use of lights on aircraft during nighttime flights to enhance visibility and minimize the likelihood of collisions. Additionally, seasonal bird migrations during the summer and autumn months, coupled with nocturnal habits, contribute to increased bird activity and raise the risk of collisions during these periods.

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, New York airports reported 493 animal collisions with aircraft from January 2021 to January 2022, averaging more than one incident per day. In 2019 alone, over 17,000 bird and animal strikes were reported at 753 airports across the United States. Notably, a staggering 227,000 such incidents occurred in America between 1990 and 2019.

Analyzing the timing of bird strikes, it is observed that 53 percent of incidents occur between July and October. Furthermore, 63 percent of bird collisions occur during daylight hours, while 29 percent take place at night. Morning and evening flights account for 8 percent of incidents, with 61 percent of collisions occurring during landing and 36 percent during takeoff. Meanwhile, only 3 percent of bird strikes happen while the plane is airborne.

Over the years, bird strikes have resulted in numerous fatalities and injuries worldwide. Between 1988 and 1999, 292 individuals lost their lives in bird-striking accidents globally, with an additional 327 people injured in the United States alone. Furthermore, animal and bird collisions have caused damage to 271 aircraft up until 2019. While 97 percent of bird collisions in the US involve birds, other animal-related incidents account for only 3 percent of runway collisions.

Aircraft propellers rotate at high speeds, making them susceptible to structural damage in the event of a bird strike. They are not designed to withstand the shocks associated with such collisions. Consequently, bird strikes can load the engine, bend piston rods, or even lead to complete propeller failure, emphasizing the potential severity of these incidents.

The occurrence of bird strikes on aircraft, even during nighttime operations, is a reality that cannot be ignored. While the majority of incidents happen during daylight hours, a significant number of collisions occur after sunset, involving nocturnal bird species. Recent incidents have highlighted the potential dangers associated with bird strikes, including engine fires and structural damage. It is crucial for aviation authorities and aircraft manufacturers to continue implementing measures to mitigate these risks, such as the use of lights on aircraft and increased awareness during seasonal bird migrations. By addressing this ongoing threat, the aviation industry can ensure safer skies for all.