Yes, Airliners Are Vulnerable To Birdstrikes

I’ve been reading about the recently released movie Sully about how Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew landed that Airbus A320 full of passengers on the Hudson River after their engines were disabled by a flock of geese.  It’s always nice to see a story with a happy ending.  I’m proud that Captain Sullenberger is a fellow Air Force Academy graduate, and such a tale is natural box-office material, with or without Tom Hanks in the lead role.

Reliving those events has given me an Air Force flashback.  In the mid-1970s, I was the on-site manufacturing officer for the B1 bomber engines being developed at the General Electric plant in Evendale, Ohio.  Yes, as part of development the engine was tested for its ability to survive birdstrikes, and yes, real birds were used.  Not live birds, of course, but they had to be actual birds.  I remember two tests.  One involved multiple strikes from small birds, and the second was a five-pound goose.  (Someone nicknamed the goose Melvin; before the test, Melvin was laying in the parking lot, thawing out on a piece of aluminum.  He was preserved by being frozen, but using a frozen bird would have been the same as using a rockjet_engine_diagram.)  The engine was designed to keep running despite the ingestion of multiple small birds, and to contain the damage from a large bird.  A jet engine has many small blades in the compressor and turbine sections.  If something catastrophic happens, the last thing you want is these blades flying through the engine casing and probably into the airplane fuselage itself.

The birds were fired into the running engine with air cannon and the test was documented with very high speed movie cameras, the kind that held a few seconds of film.  Not to give away any secrets, but the engine passed both tests, although we did learn a few things about where not to use titanium.

The modern airliner is designed to fly with the loss of one engine, but no one can be prepared for all possible situations.  Fortunately, there are people like Captain Sullenberger and his crew.


The diagram is from Google Images.


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