What it will take to prevent the next U.S. Airways Flight 1549

You know the name Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, III, because of a bird. You might think it’s because he piloted his plane to a successful crash-landing on the Hudson River just over five years ago, but all that never would have happened had US Airways Flight 1549 not first struck a flock of Canada geese. Of course, 155 passengers and crew are alive today because of Sully’s skills and quick thinking, but those geese could have hit anybody, and I like to tell myself other pilots could pull off the same feat.

I hope to never learn to the contrary.

To that end, the Today Show aired a short segment this week describing a special type of radar designed specifically to detect birds in the vicinity of an airport. According to the proponents of this technology, it could practically eliminate airliner-on-bird collisions, and save us from learning how many others could replicate Sully’s heroic feat. Today’s piece echoed a 2009 editorial in the Wall Street Journal which noted that “the number of [wildlife] strikes reported annually quadrupled to 7,666 in 2007 from 1,759 in 1990” and advocated for wider adoption of the same bird radar technology. When that editorial was published, the technology was barely four years old, and had only been tested at three airports. The technology is now ten years old, and has been adopted at a grand total of — still — three airports.*

Given the potential for one unfortunate incident to kill hundreds of people, you might think bird radar would have been adopted more widely. After all, the TSA both installed Rapiscan full-body scanners at 200 airports in 2007, and removed them in 2013. We still practically strip down to our underwear just to get to the gates. Meanwhile, airports have had access to bird radar since 2005, and the overwhelming majority of them still haven’t installed it. Something tells me that if terrorists were piloting birds into planes, we’d have one of these things at every last airport in the country.

On some level, I get it. Nobody wants to be killed by a terrorist. It’s a particularly shitty way to go, and we’ve seen what can happen when airliners are weaponized. But at the end of the day, a dead person’s a dead person, and airports should be doing what they can to minimize the chances they end up dead. Focusing on one type of salient risk at the expense of all others is probably not good policy.

Fortunately, recent developments suggest the possibility that policymakers might soon begin to take the risk more seriously:

When police spotted the white bird — which isn’t native to the area and appeared larger than an eagle — walking along a highway, they noticed it had an antenna and decided to shoot it. . . The bird then exploded, and “suspicious metal stuff” scattered around.

“We are gathering all the stuff, but found parts of what looks to be GPS and a small camera,” [police chief Maj. Gen. Abdul Nabi] Ilham said. He added that this was the first time police have made such an encounter. Police added that it is possible the bird had been “deployed” on a surveillance mission.

That’s right. Last last year, Afghani police discovered the first documented terrorist bird. U.S. airports should be receiving their own bird defense mechanisms any day now.

*By 2009, the radar had been tested in Seattle (Seatac), New York (JFK), and Chicago (O’Hare). It is no longer installed at JFK, but has since been installed in Dallas-Fort Worth. Sully’s flight took off from Laguardia.


2 thoughts on “What it will take to prevent the next U.S. Airways Flight 1549”

  1. The things Congress does to make airports safe aren’t actually about making airports safe; they’re about making people _feel_ that airports are safe, so the airline industry won’t collapse and Senators and Representatives will keep getting re-elected. They’re about seeming to be doing something useful, not about actually doing something useful.
    Fighting terrorists is sexy. Fighting flocks of birds is not.


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