Tales of a birding pilot…

on 14th January 2006

During my career as an airline pilot, I have only killed two birds, those that I know of, that is. The first was during my initial training in Seletar in a cessna. Not more than 7 hours of flying to my credit, my instructor and I were out in the training area above the catchment area doing some exercises.

We are always on the look out for Brahminy Kites (Haliastur indus), birds that often reach the heights that we fly. But we normally can avoid them. Taking a hit with a kite can be fatal to both the plane and the bird.

On that fateful flight, I saw a fast moving bird-like object from the corner of my view. If it had kept its initial heading, it would have gone right past in front without any problem. Instead it took a sharp turn and headed almost directly at the aircraft and in the final moments it pealed off to the right.

Next I heard a bang that echoed through the rear of the aircraft. We had initially thought it was some shockwave from some gun firing below or quarrying activity. But we saw no smoke or anything. And since the aircraft was ok, we carried on.

Only when we got back to the ground did we see the bloodstain on the fuselage of the aircraft. The bird has turned too late and got caught in the propeller’s wash and was slammed into the fuselage of the aircraft.

My second encounter was with a swallow. It did the same stunt on the day I first had my training flight on the 747 in Changi. We were doing circuits in an empty aircraft to make sure I could land the aircraft before I was cleared for further training.

Just as I came in for a landing and passing over Pulau Tekong, another swallow did the same stunt. This time it slammed right onto the windshield on my side of the aircraft, leaving a splatter of spittle and blood on the windshield.

These speed demons of the sky never know when they have met more than their match. But for a swallow to underestimate a 747, it must be really out of its mind.

In Perth we trained at Jandakot Airport. And as luck would have it, they had a refuse dump on the end of one of the runways. Birds flocked to the dump and returned to the coast on a daily basis. We had to keep a lookout for other aircraft traffic and also dodge pelicans (Pelecanus sp.) and flocks of gulls (Larus sp.) that were frequenting the dump. The gulls were a problem at night. We could not see them until it was too late. But in the day, they were not a problem. It was the pelicans that were dangerous in the daytime. Because of their size, they had to soar on thermals to get to a good cruising height with a favourable wind to blow them to the coast. And guess where the best thermals were? Right above the hot tarmac of the runway. The birds were hard to spot from above as they were not often in huge flocks. But there had been cases where small light aircrafts collided with pelicans. And it was a miracle how the aircraft made it back on ground safely after such an impact.

Contributed by Jeremy Lee; image of Chinook by Ashley Ng.

Comments and image of goose by YC: Air strikes of birds are commoner than we think. At the worst it results in loss of lives. Otherwise the plane needs repairs that can cost from a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars. A solitary strike with a small bird does not do much damage. A larger bird like a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) is another matter. Most air crashes occur when a bird hits the windshield or is sucked into the engine. Most bird strikes occur at takeoff but this does not mean that there are less strikes when the plane is in the air, as many may go unreported. Military aircrafts are usually more vulnerable than commercial ones as they generally fly at lower altitudes where most birds fly as well as at higher speed.

Many methods have been used to make airports safe from birds. These include use of dogs, Peregrine Falcons and Gyrfalcons as well as playing bird distress calls.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

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