Now that we know that everyone on the U.S. Air flight that ditched in the Hudson river yesterday is safe and sound, it is acceptable to say a word or two on behalf of the birds that did not survive.
More precisely, it is appropriate to say a few words about the language used by the news media about the birds.
Early in the afternoon, we saw one news story which, mercifully, we are unable to find this morning, that told its readers that birds “attacked” the airplane. Really. We are not making this up. Another spoke of a “bird attack.”
Most of the news stories we’ve seen don’t go quite that far rhetorically, but many use language like this from today’s New York Times, “. . . early indications that the US Airways jet that crash-landed in the Hudson River was struck by geese.”
That seems a little anthropomorphic to us. Wouldn’t it do less violence to the English language and to the birds to say that the plane struck the birds? Presumably the birds were going about their daily business when suddenly sucked into two jet engines.
Engines which, by the way, had to be “bird strike” certified, meaning that real engines are revved up in an air tunnel and fed dead birds to insure that they will continue to deliver power even after a bird strike.
The Washington Post was a little better, blaming the accident on a “midair encounter with geese.” That is all right, although “collision” seems even better.
Bird strikes are a significant danger around airports all over the world. The fields surrounding runways often make good bird habitat. Which is why airports use trained Border Collie dogs and falcons to frighten away birds. Airports also utilize noise cannons, loudspeakers and other devices to keep birds away. Some airports now attempt to alter the habitat as well, removing seed bearing plants and trees. Modern radar is often capable of picking up small flocks of birds that might be approaching a runway in order to “attack” the planes. It will be interesting to see if any of the radars in use yesterday show any otherwise unidentified echoes in the vicinity of the plane’s flight path.
According to news reports, bird strikes happen about once every 10,000 take-offs or landings. Most are inconsequential and a few require quick returns to land. Some have been fatal to passengers.
But, according to today’s Washington Post, “Safety experts expressed surprise that a commercial jet with modern engines could be brought down by a flock of birds. Bird strikes are common and cause tens of millions of dollars in damage to commercial aircraft but rarely lead to crashes nowadays.”
Most bird strikes, naturally enough, occur at low altitudes where birds are most likely flying. A few have happened at high altitude. According to a fine book we were going to review today, On Feathered Wings, a collision between an aircraft and an African Vulture happened at 37,000 feet. A Mallard duck collided with a plane flying at 21,000 feet and vultures and crows have been seen as high as 28,000 feet.
To conclude, we think it unfair to blame the birds for yesterday’s near tragedy. Even Aeschylus who, legend has it, was killed by an eagle which mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it to break the tortoise’s shell to get at the meat inside, probably did not blame the bird for its innocent mistake. He certainly would not have accused the bird of “attacking” him.