SAN JOSE -- A jetliner's emergency landing Friday morning at Mineta San Jose International Airport after its engine hit a bird renewed concerns about the threat that our feathered friends pose to aircraft and the effectiveness of efforts to control it.
Though the American Airlines MD-83 aircraft with 139 passengers aboard landed safely and nobody was hurt in Friday's incident, it was the second time in a month that a passenger jet made an emergency landing after hitting a bird at San Jose's airport. On Oct. 16, an Alaska Airlines flight from San Jose to Honolulu had to make an emergency landing at Oakland International Airport after striking a bird during takeoff. No one was injured in that incident either.
But Friday's close call rattled passengers aboard the American Airlines Flight 118 to Dallas.
"The plane had barely started climbing when we heard a loud noise, like something exploded," passenger Yazmin Broissin said, speaking via a Spanish interpreter. "The person next to me said don't worry, nothing had happened, but I saw that the plane was not climbing; it was circling the city."
"After the strike, there was a loud noise inside the plane," said Broissin, 52, of San Jose, imitating a rumbling sound. "I said to myself, 'That's strange, that's not normal.' And then we were landing again."
At San Jose, one bird in particular seems to be vexing aircraft: Almost a quarter of the airport's wildlife strikes this year were red-tailed hawks. And while the airport has shot 137 birds -- including 27 red-tailed hawks -- in the year's first 10 months to try to reduce the risk, recent months have seen an upsurge in strikes anyway.
It's not yet clear what kind of bird collided with American Airlines Flight 1118 soon after it took off early Friday morning.
Airports at risk of wildlife strikes must file a Wildlife Hazard Management Plan with the Federal Aviation Administration, with three tiers: habitat modification, harassment by noise or pyrotechnics, and -- as a last resort -- removal. If it comes to that, airports can get depredation permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to kill animals.
San Jose International spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said the FAA ordered the airport in February 2012 to prepare its plan, which is now in draft form pending final approval. The San Jose City Council a year ago changed the municipal code to allow use of firearms to kill birds at the airport.
The FAA's wildlife-strike database shows there were 46 reports of wildlife strikes from San Jose International Airport from Jan. 1 through the end of July, the latest date available. San Francisco International Airport reported 35 wildlife strikes and Oakland International Airport reported 44 strikes during that time.
But San Jose's own records show the airport had 51 more wildlife strikes from Aug. 1 through Nov. 6, of which 22 were red-tailed hawks, according to Barnes.
"This increase in red-tailed hawk numbers is due to the seasonal migration of the species which will last through November," she said. "According to our data, there is an influx in red-tailed hawk numbers during migration every third year. This year happens to be one of those migration years where we see much greater numbers of these hawks in the area."
Of 138 birds shot at SJC from Jan. 1 through the end of October, 27 were red-tailed hawks, 26 were rock pigeons, 24 were American crows and 18 were California gulls. The airport also "hazed," or scared off, 5,311 birds.
Most bird strikes don't cause damage, yet Friday's was the fifth incident since late September in which a plane leaving San Jose either aborted takeoff or made an emergency landing. Two occurred within nine minutes of each other on Sept. 28 -- both involving red-tailed hawks.
The red-tailed hawk averages about 2.5 pounds and boasts a wingspan of up to more than four and a half feet -- quite big enough to play havoc with an aircraft engine.
Daniel Taylor, Audubon California's public policy director, said this problem has existed "since the dawn of flight," with airplane co-inventor Orville Wright reporting the first bird strike. Audubon worked with the Legislature to pass a 2009 law that brought the state in line with federal standards for balancing air safety with wildlife protection, he said.
"It's no fun being a passenger aboard one of those flights ... and we're very sensitive to the safety of the flying public," Taylor said. "We just want to make sure lethal control is not the first remedy but the last resort."
San Jose's raptor problem "suggests there's a lot of room to improve public safety just based on habitat modification," Taylor said.
But Barnes said the airport has been doing all it can to reduce the risk within its perimeter, and also works with nearby facilities such as landfills and golf courses to ensure they're controlling the area's bird population, too. "It's an ongoing program, it's ongoing vigilance and ultimately the safety of our passengers and aircraft is our top priority."
SJC just last week announced that Boy Scout Caleb Levine, as his community service project to reach his Eagle rank, had built a pair of traps to catch migrating red-tailed hawks and other raptors so they can be released elsewhere.
Perhaps the most famous incident in recent memory was in January 2009, when a US Airways flight leaving New York City's LaGuardia Airport struck a flock of Canada geese during its initial climb; pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River.
Contact Josh Richman at 510-208-6428. Follow him on Twitter @Josh_Richman.
Sources: FAA, Mineta San Jose International Airport