THERE were more than 700 reported mid-air collisions in Australian skies last year. Fortunately there were no human fatalities — but more than a few feathers were ruffled.
And the problem is getting worse. Since 2001 the Australian Safety Transport Bureau has recorded a rising trend in the number of collisions between birds and aeroplanes at the country's major airports. Melbourne has reported 60 bird strikes since the start of the year with almost 350 collisions nationwide.
While a starling can easily pass through the engine of a Boeing 747 with minimal damage to the plane, the consequence of an eagle flying into a small turbo propeller can be catastrophic. In 2002, the bureau released a study paper, The Hazards Posed to Aircraft by Birds, and estimated that bird strikes cost the global aviation industry more than $US3 billion ($A3.9 billion) a year.
Airliner engines are stringently tested to withstand bird strikes. One such test involves a technician throwing four dead chickens into an engine to examine whether it can maintain enough thrust to continue flying.
Bird strikes are more likely to occur in the earlier months of the year and spikes in incidents are usually in line with bird migration and feeding patterns. Collisions are more likely to occur at dawn and most happen during take-off and landing.
While reports of bird strikes have increased across Australia, Melbourne Airport's airfield manager Mark Wilson said his staffused a variety of techniques to scare birds away.
Mr Wilson said staff used a combination of noise makers, gas cannons, and solar-powered broadcasters that emit piercing bird noises, and, in dire circumstances, a shotgun.
The airport has monthly meetings with safety and airline staff and even employs the knowledge of a Melbourne bird expert. Airlines are required by legislation to report a bird strike within 72 hours of the event, but even the sight of bloodied feathers or a squashed carcass on the side of a runway is reported to the bureau.
The birds posing the greatest hazard to passenger aircraft at Melbourne Airport include starlings, magpies, ravens, feral pigeons and the ibis.
Bird strike is viewed so seriously by the aviation industry that each species of bird is given a hazard rating worked out by how many incidents involved one type of bird combined with the damage it causes to aircraft.
Larger birds have a higher hazard rating compared with their smaller feathered friends. The bureau has also recorded three accidents involving emus since 2001.
Mr Wilson said Melbourne Airport worked with other airports across the country and also the safety bureau and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in the formation of a bird and animal hazard working group.
One bird can ground a plane, costing an airline hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in repairs and compensation.
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