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Waterfowl and Weather Radar…

January 14th, 2009 · 7 Comments

Here’s one for Mythbusters!

As we waited by runway 16L in Sacramento, CA yesterday morning, we were informed by the tower controller that there was a large flock of migratory waterfowl approaching the airport from the East. It appeared to him that they were traveling west-southwest and would cross over the departure end of the runway. As we searched the sky, we found the birds. There were at least fifteen “V’s” (formations) of snow geese (yes, I could tell what they were), each formation consisting of about 40 birds.  Let’s just say there were a LOT of snow geese, and that I was definitely glad we weren’t right underneath them!

We were cleared for takeoff at our discretion, meaning that we could delay our takeoff roll as long as we felt it necessary to avoid the birds. We taxied into takeoff position on the runway and set the parking brake, watching as the vanguard of their flight crossed over the departure end of our runway.

Now, most airline pilots have heard the myth that the energy emitted by an airplane’s weather radar can have a repelling effect to birds in flight. The problem is that we rarely see anything evidence that the myth might actually be true. Nevertheless, when there are large flocks of birds reported in the vicinity of an airport, we often turn the weather radar “ON” on the off chance that there might be something to the idea. Call it superstition.

My Captain mentioned the myth briefly, and (obviously the superstitious type) then reached down to crank the knob that turns our radar on. What we saw was very surprising. We watched the first of the birds immediately change his flight path by turning back to the East and losing about half his altitude. This, of course, caused every goose behind him to do exactly the same (a testament to the head-goose’s leadership ability, no doubt).

My Captain and I just turned, looked at each other, and laughed as we advanced the thrust levers and took off into a bird-free sky.

Of course we’ll never know whether it was our radar that caused the change in direction of that flock of geese. Heck, it could have been a nicely-flooded rice paddy that caught the eye of the leader of that gaggle and he figured it was a good time to stop for lunch. Still, knowing the effects that a flock of geese can have on an airplane that’s moving at 200+ knots, I think I’ll continue using the radar to warn them to stay the hell out of our way.

By the way…here’s what bird-versus-airplane often looks like (image source unknown):

As you can see, it’s neither good for the bird, nor the airlplane.

(Damage not pictured: soiled cockpit seat cushions)

Tags: Aviation Safety

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Flying Europe // Jan 14, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    On some Jepp Charts (10-9 Airport) there is specific reference requesting “pilots should use wx radar to avoid migratory birds in vicinity of airfield”.

    Just yesterday I saw a flock of birds flying above the 600 feet overcast, almost in full IMC. Never seen that before.

    Here are some more bird vs. airplane shots:


    brdgs FE

  • 2 gcalvin // Jan 14, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    I imagine that very large flocks show up as radar echoes, since it is widely known that ground-based radar is often used to track migrations. But I’ve never seen any official documentation concerning the use of airborne weather radar as a means of keeping the birds out of the airplane’s path.

    Still, I’d like to see that Jeppesen 10-9 you’re referring to. I’ve never found a notation such as that on any 10-9 charts I’ve used here in the U.S. Then again, maybe I’m just not looking closely enough.

    Activities of birds around an airport are typically disseminated to pilots via ATIS broadcasts.

  • 3 Flying Europe // Jan 14, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Here’s one for ya:


    (I blurred out the rest due to Copyright of Jepp.)


  • 4 Mitchell Armstrong // Jan 16, 2009 at 6:03 am

    You must of foreseen the US 320 going into the Hudson today! Only 2 days after your post. A good indicator at what some geese can do to a large airliner. Hopefully one day us pilots will have a solution to the natural dangers around us.

  • 5 Gina // Jan 17, 2009 at 7:52 am

    What a timely post, GC! Uh, can you maybe look at some lotto numbers for me? Hope 2009 is off to a good start for you.

  • 6 Knot // Jan 18, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Wow … the fact you posted this just before the crash in the Hudson … how odd.


  • 7 Aircraft Parts // Mar 10, 2009 at 2:50 am

    You know, when I heard about what happened the plane on Hudson and people kept on talking that it was the fault of the birds. I was like, how could bird cause such an accident like that. Now I know that birds indeed have the power to crash the plane. The last photo looks weird.

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