FAA Testing Radar To Avoid Bird Strikes

Bird Strike Radar
This radar system, based on similar technology used by the United States Air Force, is being tested for use at commerical airports.

Federal investigators said Monday there's evidence a bird struck a helicopter that went down in Louisiana last month - though they're not ready to say that caused the crash. Eight people were killed. A "bird strike" is believed to have brought down the jet that splash-landed in the Hudson in January. And some wonder why there's no warning system for commercial air traffic, as CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports, the military is already using one.

Years before US Airways Flight 1549 splashed into the Hudson River, radar -- calibrated to detect birds -- was already in use by the Navy and Air Force. The goal was to provide real time information to pilots about where birds are.

"It's still being refined," says Lt. Col. Lee Landis at Dover Air Force Base. "But I would say it's a very good system, very capable of helping the people in the tower and the pilots avoid birds."

In England, a 757 hit a bird on takeoff and lost an engine. In Rome, a 737 hit a flock of birds on landing; and in 1995, all 24 people on board an Air Force plane died after it collided with geese and crashed.

At Dover Air Force Base, a system scans the takeoff and landing paths. When it senses an increased threat, it sounds an alarm. There are still kinks in the system. But so far, Lt. Col. Landis likes what he sees.

For almost 10 years, the Federal Aviation Administration has been urged to use similar radar systems, Schlesinger reports. In 1999, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended one system to the FAA that the board said could "seriously prevent serious bird strike incidents."

Since then, at least 65 planes have had to make emergency landings after hitting birds, that's an average of more than 1 every couple of months, and the FAA has not rolled out any nationwide bird radar.

"Ten years to come up with some sort of an answer is not acceptable," says John Goglia, a former NTSB board member.

He worries that modern planes are more at risk because they have fewer engines.

So why wouldn't the FAA install the Air Force system or something like it at commercial airports? The agency wouldn't provide anyone to talk on camera, but it has contracted with The University of Illinois to evaluate bird radar.

"What has taken so long?" Schlesigner asks.

"Well part of the issue is due diligence," says Edwin Herricks, professor at the University of Illinois. "We simply have to make sure that the pieces all fit together and that they work well, they're tested and they are reliable."

The FAA is studying the system at Seattle's airport and now hopes to perfect it so it doesn't see too little or too much.

"It sees a lot," Herricks said. "It may see insects and it may see birds. So, would you like an airplane delayed because there may be some insects?"

"It will become more reliable," Goglia says. "In the meantime, waiting for a perfect system, we're putting the traveling public at risk."

Blame the bureaucracy, or blame the technology, but it will be years before passengers have much more of a defense against bird strikes besides a pilot's good eyesight, and in one case, amazing skill.

By Richard Schlesinger

  • Richard Schlesinger
    Richard Schlesinger

    Correspondent, "48 Hours," "CBS Evening News"