A drop in damage as aircraft bird strike reports climb, FAA data show

Moments after United Flight 1738 took off from O’Hare International Airport on the clear morning of Thursday, June 1, passenger Drew Tewksbury heard a thud. The plane tilted left, then leveled out.

Tewksbury, 48, an insurance executive from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, said the plane’s right engine started making the sound of a car driving down a highway with a flat tire.

“Within 30 seconds, someone in the back said, ‘Hey, there’s flames coming out’,” he said.

Bound for Miami, the twin-engine Boeing 737-900 suffered a bird strike. According to air traffic control recordings, pilots said the plane struck a flock of geese.

Video posted on Twitter shows flames spitting from the No. 2 engine.

Flight 1738 circled over Lake Michigan before turning back toward O’Hare, making an emergency landing at about 8:30 a.m., according to Flightstats.com. With one engine, the plane couldn’t use its reverse thrust to slow down, making for a rough landing, said Tewksbury.

“It was only brakes,” said Tewksbury, who connected at O’Hare from Cleveland for a work trip. “The pilots did a great job.”

Passengers boarded another plane for Miami later that morning.

Aircraft bird strikes are a reality of modern aviation, but they usually aren’t a problem.

“Sometimes we don’t even know that we had a bird strike,” said Joseph McElwee, 29, a pilot for a major U.S.-based airline.

Planes hit thousands of birds each year in the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Authority’s Wildlife Strike Database, which began tracking in 1990. When strikes happen, damage ranges from repairable fender-benders like dented noses and cracked windshields to critical, costly engine failures.

Many Americans are familiar with the “Miracle on the Hudson” in 2009, when both engines of US Airways Flight 1549 ingested geese, causing the Airbus A320 to lose power and land in the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan.

From 1990 to April 2016, the most recent data, Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports reported a combined 5,387 strikes, with more than 4,000 from O’Hare alone (about 75 percent). But reports have climbed since 2001 when the FAA made electronic reporting available. During the same period, there were 166,276 total strikes reported in the U.S.

At both Chicago airports, about two-thirds of strikes occur during the day. About 50 percent happen during approach.

The American kestrel, a small variety of falcon, shares the morbid distinction as the most-struck bird at both O’Hare and Midway. Nationally, it ranks second to the Mourning dove. Both airports report Killdeer, Mourning doves, and red-tailed hawks, as well.

“Raptors (hawk & kestrel) like hunting small rodents in the short grass,” said Carl Giometti, president of the Chicago Ornithological Society, via email. “Airports provide great perches where they can scan over a large area.”

Canada geese don’t rank in the top 10 for either airport, but they tend to make headlines because their larger mass can cripple an aircraft.

The FAA estimates economic losses from bird strikes at $666 million since 1990. It attributes 20 percent, about $127 million, to Canada geese. Planes coming and going from Chicago’s airports hit 139 species of birds, as well as 16 species of non-birds typically considered as roadkill, including raccoons, bats, deer, rabbits, turtles, coyotes, foxes, and skunks.

Identifying species isn’t always easy, especially when only feathers or blood remain.

That’s when airlines turn to the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab. Based in Washington, D.C., the lab analyzes remnant samples that airports send in the form of feathers, fragments, bills, talons, tissue, and feet. “Anything that they find,” said Dr. Carla Dove, a forensic ornithologist who directs the lab.

There’s even a term for a bird’s gooey remains after a plane strike: snarge.

The lab gets over 8,000 cases a year, including ones from the Air Force and Navy, according to Marcy Heacker, research assistant at the Smithsonian Institution. The FAA doesn’t require the commercial airline industry to report strikes, but the agency encourages it.

“Thank goodness we do not see rare species very often,” Heacker said.

She said cases usually peak in October when birds migrate. Data for Midway and O’Hare show strikes peak in late summer.

Lt. Andrew Horvath, 31, a Navy pilot based in Norfolk, Virginia, said he’s had about a dozen bird strikes in almost a decade of flying. “I’ve seen carrion birds soaring solo up to 6,000 feet, flocks of egrets at 4,000 feet, seagulls the size of watermelons at 3,000 feet, and finches soaring just inches above terra firma.”

There is positive news. As more reports are submitted each year, there’s been a decline in the rate of damage-causing strikes nationally. FAA data shows from 2000 to 2015, the number and rate (per 100,000 aircraft movements) of damaging strikes dropped 32 and 19 percent, respectively.

Notes on the reporting:

I obtained my data from FAA Wildlife Strike Database: https://wildlife.faa.gov/database.aspx

From there, I compiled all available data for ORD and MDW. Pivot tables are labeled on separate sheets: https://docs.google.com/a/u.northwestern.edu/spreadsheets/d/19hp5A-6EdCTGxyHhWihrxeMyQp0m55IqzOpS7Krg8aE/edit?usp=sharing

Combining O’Hare and Midway data seemed like the best way to show Chicago’s overall data, since they are two of the busiest airports in the country.

Pivot tables include: damage counts, incident counts by year, phase of flight when strikes occur, time of day, and percent change of reports by year since 2000.

S24O Report: Illinois Beach State Park

Arriving in style.

People always ask me how many bikes I have. Right now, it’s the bare minimum I’m supposed to, if I’m keeping score by the Velominati’s “Rules” (see #12). So, three. When I follow that answer with something like, “Well, one of them is my touring bike,” I get all nostalgic and guilty because I haven’t put in the miles on that sucker that I should. I’ve logged a few thousand miles on my Long Haul Trucker, on everything from rando-style road rides to a month-long hump down the Pacific Coast.

But here in Chicago, it’s tough. I’ve taken her down the lakefront to work, hauled an astonishing amount of groceries, and of course, plenty of beer. Sad to say I’ve not had the time to get out of dodge and pitch a tent. In between job, traveling, road races and jam-packed weekends, it hasn’t happened. Being an adult is overrated sometimes.

Yet, there is hope. It’s called the bike overnight. Or out-and-back. Or bike camping. Or my favorite, the Sub 24-hour Tour (S24O). Been telling myself I’d do it all summer, yet somehow I got hung up on my own planning. Before I knew it, August rolled around and I hadn’t put much thought into it. So I just started telling people, “Yeah, I’m doing it this weekend. Overnighter.” Telling people your plans sometimes forces you to realize them.

So, this past weekend, I did it. I rolled out Friday around 3PM with George, setting our sights for Illinois Beach State Park. It’s about 50 miles north of Chicago, as far north as you can get in Illinois before you’re in Wisconsin. It occupies a couple miles of waterfront on Lake Michigan, including beaches, camping and stunning view of a power plant. But it’s doable, and I wanted to be on the lake.

The route



We followed our usual way out of town through Evanston, Skokie, Wilmette and Highland Park. The Skokie Valley Path shot us into Lake Forest, and from there we reeled in the road through Chicago’s far north ‘burbs. Had to bushwhack around some construction in Waukegan, smooth riding besides that. We arrived at camp, but not before a last-mile beer run.

Map below.

View S24O to Illinois Beach State Park in a larger map. (Tried to get this to embed, but I’m learning the ropes here. Bear with me.)

The gear


Loaded Trucker at McD’s.

Packing for an overnight shan’t be complicated. George told me it only took him five minutes to pack. My crap, on the other hand, had to be dug up from a toolbox, bike clothing drawers, basement storage, and a big Tupperware I put random bike stuff in. Gear tends to diffuse when you haven’t used it in years, and moved it around three times.

  • Bike: 2 Ortlieb rolldown waterproof panniers. 2 tubes, 2 co2’s+inflator, patch kit, multitool, tire levers, Topeak Road Morph G pump, U-lock, a couple of zip ties.
  • Food: 2 Clif bars, 2 Honey Stingers, 1 cup of chicken flavored Ramen, 1 can of tuna, small bag of trail mix, banana, Nescafe instant coffee, 1 24 oz. water bottle, 1 1.5L Nalgene, and some marshmallows+Hersheys bar (forgot to get graham crackers).
  • KitchenSnowpeak titanium hybrid trailpot+pan, MSR 4 oz. iso-butane stove fuel, stove, lighter.
  • Other: Pen, small travel log journal, Leatherman tool, WX radio, nPower Peg to charge phone, LED headlamp, 2 bungee cords, spare MSR sand stake, bug spray.
  • Clothing: Socks, underwear, tee, light zip hoody, swimsuit, flipflops, microfiber towel, camp rag.
  • Sleep: Six Moon Designs tent+ground cloth, *Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag (see next section for asterisk).


The Trip

Carving out miles on the North Shore Bike Path.

On both days of riding, we couldn’t have asked for better weather. A couple days before, I called IBSP to reserve a campsite because I figured it’s one of the only places to camp between Chicago and Milwaukee, and it’d be sure to fill up. I was right.

When we arrived, the ladies at the kiosk told us the place was booked. No problem, we whipped out our reservation receipt. But to no avail, they said whoever made the reservation did it wrong and that it was actually booked before we called. I looked at George. The ladies watched the color drain from my face, paused, then burst out laughing—giving us a hard time. Not bad, ladies, not bad. They said we were an easy kill because we rode in on bikes.

310, where the party’s at.

The site was close to the water, although it was heard and not seen. There was a good mix of tents, RVs, and those big-ass transformer bus camper things; luckily we didn’t hear any generators kick on. We got some looks as we rolled into camp around 6PM, as if to say—”Look, der, honey. They gots their camping gear on the bike!”—but the couple we met in the site next to us had done the ride up before, too, as well as some other tours. There was a guy in a pickup truck towing a trailer full of firewood, making the rounds for the campground, sort of like the ice cream truck.
I got my tent set up, bereft of one stake.

Six Moon Designs tent.

On whim, I brought along this red MSR sand stake for beach camping. My uncle gave this to me, like, ten years ago for Christmas. Maybe longer. And I’ve never used it, but always liked the idea of having it around for, I don’t know, using it to pierce the heart of a dragon should I ever be attacked in the wilderness. It finally validated its existence among my camping gear. (Thanks, Uncle Bob!):

MSR Sand Stake.

While setting up my tent, I unfurled what I thought was my sleeping bag. Turns out, it was my Mont Bell down jacket from the winter. I grabbed the wrong stuff sack. My *sleeping bag was hanging in its storage bag at home. I had stuffed the jacket into my Western Mountaineering sack because I lost the Mont Bell one. Whoops. I ended up sleeping with it wrapped around my legs. It was warm enough that I didn’t need much up top. The hoody sufficed:

Sleeping bag fail.

With camp set up, we took a dip in the lake. There were a handful of others in the water, mostly people shrieking at the temperature. And cold it was. George and I made it a contest of manhood to see how far we could walk in before having to give up and dunk in. Water was probably in the mid 60s, brisk yet refreshing (what do you expect? It’s a melted glacier), not nearly as dirty as the water around Chicago’s beaches. The blinking power plant in the distance wasn’t reassuring, but hey, I felt clean. We took a dip the following morning after coffee:

Empty lot: riding to the beach in the AM.

Drying racks.

Beach rad, breaux.

You know how it is when you camp with a buddy. You work through a 12-pack together, canvass every topic that a campfire conversation is possible of accommodating, blow off steam, laugh about the stressful crap that you just rode away from, stir the flames, and pass out.

The next day, after our swim we broke down camp and rolled out, generally following the same way back except for a detour around Waukegan’s construction, via McAree Road: http://runkeeper.com/user/nwrighteous/route/2472409

We had a light tailwind, and it turns out the route was gradually downhill. So we burned off miles at a steady clip, holding 19-21 mph on the Skokie Valley Path southbound, no problem, thinking we might catch up with our team’s Saturday morning training ride (we didn’t). But not before getting caught by the longest freight train ever:

Chugga chugga.

More reports to follow. Shooting for Starved Rock State Park next.

I’ll leave you with this.

Sun sets on Surly. Go ride your bike.


Big fan of Instagrid – a clean, simple self-loading interface for your Instagram shots:

Instagrid – nwrighteous

Nod to Scott Kleinberg at the Tribune for this find and for picking up one of my shots.

Twitter: Scott Kleinberg

Willis Tower

Willis Tower from the Chicago River.

Updated Magazine Clips

It’s certainly been long overdue, but I’ve updated links under writing clips from web exclusives published by Modern Metals and FFJournal magazines.  As more go live on modernmetals.com and ffjournal.net, I will post them.

Modern Metals and FFJournal cover industries such as metal fabricating, material handling, forming technology, steel service center news, OEMs, welding, as well as and automotive, aerospace, and infrastructure.

Check back for more.

Under the Viaduct

Bicycle parking for the 2011 Bicycle Film Festival [Chicago] underneath the Western Avenue viaduct (Western/Belmont).  Temperature 28ºF, with freezing rain.  Made for a nasty ride home.