Tuesday, March 23, 2010


It's Tuesday, mid morning on day three of my current trip, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Under a white but clear sky the sun is getting rid of the dew on the grass and surfaces.  From my hotel window I can see the airport only a quarter mile away, and a jet on final.  It's going to be a great day, it seems.

Our first day had us flying six legs on a Sunday, in and out of New York LaGaurdia and Philadelphia, mostly.  We arrived in New York on the second flight of the day, then saw it again after stopping in Philly once.  After seeing Philly twice we were to make our way up to Allentown, Pennsylvania for the night.  Allentown is pretty close to Philly so it would be a busy, short flight.

On our third flight, LGA-PHL, we had a jumpseating pilot up front.  He was a Captain for a large regional airline which has a good prescence at LaGaurdia, but not ours.  He seemed like a sharp fellow, and proved it before the flight was over.  Our First Officer was flying the plane with the autopilot engaged in the Philadelphia terminal area, and I was handling the radios and checklists while we were getting vectors for the visual approach to runway 35 (landing towards the north).  Philly sometimes gives us delay vectors for 35 because they have to coordinate the proper spacing for the landing runways.  Runway 35 and runway '27 right' physically cross each other, like a street intersection, so it's critical that we have safe spacing when they are landing jets on both of these runways.  After zig zagging per ATC's instructions for a few minutes it looked as if we would be cleared for the visual approach at any second.  We could easily see Philadelphia International through the afternoon haze, in a very pleasant appearing sky, about ten miles away.  We were about 2,000 feet above the ground, pointed toward the airport, when a voice shouted, loudly, GEESE!!  It was our jumpseater, looking out for us.  The fact that I nor my FO hadn't seen them didn't bother me, I was glad that 'Dan' our jumpseating pilot in the extra seat, did.

Upon all of us looking up, there they were, at our altitude, almost right in front of us.  Actually, they were from our center position in front of us off to our right.  It was two large flocks of big honkers, Canadian Geese, the kind that brought down US Airways 1549.  Just as my brain thought that we needed to disconnect the autopilot and manuever to avoid these birds, and I may need to ask my FO to do just that, he did.  "Blink blink blink blink" (a poor imitation) the sound came as he disconnected the autopilot and smoothly but quickly banked the plane to the left to avoid the flock, and the birds nearest to our flight path banked away from us as well.  We had other options if the birds had been right in front of us, on both sides, but thankfully they weren't, and we didn't have to consider them.  If that had been the case, whomever was flying the plane could have disconnected the autopilot and started a sudden climb or dive to avoid the birds. 

But that would have been a tall order, at the range we can identify birds in our way, there just isn't enough time to be that clever, it's a matter of three to five seconds before they're there and past you, it happens quickly.  We aren't given specific training or advise on how to avoid flocks of big, aiplane damaging birds, besides the simple but sage advice of "see and avoid". 

I reported a large flock of geese at our altitude about two miles behind us to approach control, right after they cleared us for the viusual approach to runway 35, shortly after our encounter with them.  They appreciated it, and had already been busy advising other aircraft on final approach for runway 27 right of other flocks of geese in the final approach path for that runway.  It was a certain afternoon of risk for a large bird strike at Philly.

After ten years of airline flying, this was the second closest I've come to a large bird strike incident, and the largest flock I've seen up close.  The closest were 'six flashes above out heads at night',  while descending into a prarie airport.  See my original posting here for that one.

I hear these beautiful birds outside my open window now, landing in the courtyard of the hotel here.  I like these honkers, like watching them fly and hang out; they are certainly majestic and beautiful.  And dangerous.  I have three more days of flying and avoiding flocks of birds, before this bird writing this heads 'north', to migrate back home.