Airplane bird strikes – such as the one that sparked flames and fear on a departing Southwest Airlines jet Monday evening – have declined this year at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, according to federal records.
A Federal Aviation Administration database shows 13 bird strikes reported at RDU so far this year, not including Monday’s incident. In preceding years, RDU bird-strike counts for the same eight-month period have ranged from 18 to 25.
A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 jet sucked birds into its left engine just after takeoff Monday with 124 passengers bound for Chicago. Passengers on Flight 220 said they were frightened when they saw smoke and fire pouring from the damaged engine.
“It was making a weird noise on the left engine side, and then it smelled really weird, and then it started shooting out flames,” passenger Shelley Chan told WTVD.
The Southwest jet circled RDU for a while before landing without incident at 6:43 p.m., about 45 minutes after it took off.
“When we incur a bird strike, we do shut down the engine,” airline spokeswoman Whitney Eichenger said Tuesday from Southwest headquarters in Dallas. “The aircraft is fully equipped to land safely with one engine.”
Eichenger said the airline would inspect the aircraft to determine the extent of damage. She did not know how many or what kind of birds were involved.
RDU uses fireworks, sirens and lawnmowers to try to keep birds and other animals away from airplanes.
Spokeswoman Mindy Hamlin said airport workers keep the razor-wire fences repaired to prevent deer and other animals from running onto the runway. They keep the grass mowed short, to discourage birds from building their nests there.
And when pilots or air traffic controllers spot flocks of geese or gulls trespassing at RDU, airport workers use sirens and pyrotechnics to shoo them away.
“We can do a lot on the ground to prevent birds from using this as a residence,” Hamlin said. “If we see that birds are gathering on the property, we can use firecrackers that make them disperse. We have sirens on cars that will disperse them as well.”
In all, the FAA says, 180 airplanes have struck birds at RDU since January 2008, either during or after takeoff or as they were approaching or landing. Two pilots have reported run-ins with coyotes on the RDU runway, once in 2009 and once in 2011. No human injuries have been reported.
In more than 90 percent of these incidents, the pilots reported no damage to the aircraft. A few of the private and commercial aircraft sustained cracked windshields, dented fuselages and minor damage to engines, landing lights and landing gears.
Another Southwest Airlines flight was involved in the most serious bird-strike incident at RDU since January 2008, and the only one with “substantial” damage reported, according to the FAA database.
The Boeing 737 was making its takeoff run at 150 mph on Jan. 31 when it struck a flock of birds, later identified by the Smithsonian Institution as ring-billed gulls, on the runway. Between two and 10 birds were sucked into the left engine.
The Southwest pilot circled back and landed safely at RDU. Airline mechanics later replaced engine turbine blades and repaired damage to the right main landing gear and the left rear elevator – a horizontal flight-control flap on the aircraft tail.