Is There Really No Way to Keep a Goose Out of a Jet Engine?

Popular Science takes a gander at a sticky issue, in the wake of the plane downed in the Hudson River

Good for the Goose

Keeping birds out of plane engines is tricky businessDoug Hamilton/ Getty Images

Unfortunately, there's pretty much no way to protect jet engines from geese or other large birds. In fact, fastening some sort of shield over a jet engine could actually make things worse.

From 1997 to 2007, reported animal strikes per civil flight more than doubled, reaching 7,600 in 2007—mainly glancing shots—in 54 million flights, according to Richard Dolbeer, former chairman of the volunteer organization Bird Strike Committee USA. Because most bird strikes occur less than 500 feet off the ground, experts blame the growing populations of Canada geese and other birds near airports.

Foie Gras Alert

When a goose or another bird is sucked into a plane's engine, the resulting carnage can jam up the turbine enough to stop the engine. Most famously, a flock of geese shut down both engines of a 150-passenger Airbus A320 shortly after takeoff this January, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing in New York's Hudson River.

Splash Landing

A flock of Canada geese downed Flight 1549 into the Hudson RiverSteven Day/AP Photo

Although one might assume that airlines could shield jet engines with a screen or a set of bars, it's simply not practical, says Russell DeFusco, vice president of bird-strike consultants BASH, Inc. A 12-pound goose hits a plane traveling 150 mph on takeoff with roughly the same force as dropping a grand piano from the second story of a building, says Matthew Perra, a spokesman for engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. Beyond the fact that any screen would create turbulence and inhibit free-flowing air from entering the engine, thus weakening its thrust, if the screen broke on impact, it too could be sucked into the engine and cause even more damage, DeFusco says.

Per FAA regulations, before a new engine model can be strapped to planes it must first prove that it can safely shut down after ingesting a four-pound bird carcass. This test might not be rigorous enough, however, considering that the largest Canada geese tip the scales at 14 pounds.

Bird-repelling techniques now in use at airports include draining fowl-friendly ponds and scaring off birds with firecrackers. The FAA is also working on a bird-detecting radar like the one Kennedy Space Center has had since a space shuttle's 2005 run-in with a vulture.