The two military pilots whose plane crashed last September after a bird strike near Fort Worth had little to no way to prevent the crash, an aviation safety expert said.
Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, reviewed the cockpit video obtained this week by the Star-Telegram. Schiavo said the pilots, both of whom ejected at the last second, were up against a “perfect storm” when they lost the jet’s single engine.
“This aircraft had all the bad things lined up against it,” she said. “They just had everything working against them.”
A Navy instructor and a Marine student pilot were flying a T-45C Goshawk on a training flight from Corpus Christi to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth. As the jet made its final approach, a 4.5-pound vulture appeared directly in front of it and was ingested into the engine, according to the video and a Navy report also obtained by the Star-Telegram.
In the seconds after the bird was sucked into the engine, one of the pilots can be heard swearing and then radioing in an emergency landing. But as landing instructions come over the radio, competing with the sounds of alarms in the cockpit, the pilot follows up with another transmission.
“We’re not gonna make it,” he says.
The plane then dips suddenly toward the ground, and the trees below come closer into focus as the pilot yells, “Standby to eject. Pull up! Pull up!”
Thirty seconds after the bird strike, the plane plummeted into a dense Lake Worth neighborhood. The two pilots ejected and survived the crash, although the student pilot sustained serious injuries. The plane crashed through the neighborhood, damaging multiple homes and injuring three civilians, although no one was killed.
Schiavo, who was inspector general from 1990 to 1996, has been highly critical of the airline industry and federal regulators and now works as an aviation litigator. She has appeared in numerous television programs about airline crash investigations.
After reviewing the Navy report and the flight video, Schiavo said she doesn’t see a realistic way that the two pilots could’ve avoided the crash.
To start with, birds don’t show up on a plane’s radar unless they’re in an unusually large flock, she said, which means these pilots wouldn’t have known about the bird hazard until they physically saw the vulture.
“Unfortunately, the first knowledge that a pilot has — they’re much very like what’s in that video — is, boom, there’s a bird in your windshield or your engine,” Schiavo said.
And because the jet they were flying had just a single engine, the pilots were left entirely without power once the bird was ingested.
A plane can still be steered after it loses power, Schiavo said, and pilots are typically taught to glide an aircraft that loses power. But the T-45C Goshawk isn’t a very glide-able plane, she said, because of its relatively stubby wings.
Plus, gliding any plane requires at least some airflow over the wings. Based on the sudden dive that the trainer jet takes, according to the video, it likely lost airflow, too, Schiavo said.
“If somebody wanted to play devil’s advocate, they’d say, ‘Well, maybe they could’ve set it up to glide.’ I doubt it,” she said. “I think they were too close to the ground and too close to the runway.”
Reports of bird strikes are increasing in the United States, according to a voluntary database maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration. That database reported 1,800 wildlife strikes involving civil aircraft in 1990, compared with 16,000 in 2018. In the past 15 years, there have been more than 185,000 wildlife strikes, according to the FAA database, including 32 that fully destroyed the aircraft.
In perhaps the most well-known example, US Airways Flight 1549 crashed into New York’s Hudson River in 2009 after hitting a flock of geese that took out both engines. Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger glided the plane into the river, and everyone on board survived.
Both Schiavo and the FAA pointed to growing bird populations as one factor in the rising number of aircraft strikes.
Texas has seen an increase in the population of black vultures, the type of bird that downed the trainer jet, for at least 50 years.
Schiavo said some bird strikes can be prevented by intentional land-use practices that don’t attract birds, and by scaring birds away from runway areas with sounds and lights. She noted that these practices often can’t be applied off airport property, which limits their effectiveness.
She also said drones can be deployed to spot bird flocks in order to warn pilots, although that approach isn’t widely used.
The FAA says on its website that it has plans to expand its research into wildlife risk management in the proximity of airports.
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