Cannons keep planes safe, one chicken at a time

Cannons keep planes safe, one chicken at a time

(CNN) — Birds may be the undisputed masters of the air, but they’ve been on the losing end of mid-air collisions since the dawn of aviation in 1905, when pioneering pilot Orville Wright reported the first bird strike.

Every year, thousands of birds get too close to an aircraft, can’t maneuver, and are killed on impact with an aircraft.

In 2019, in the United States alone, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported more than 17,000 bird strikes, with thousands more reported, and unreported, worldwide.

Most collisions occur within 3,000 feet of the ground, during takeoff and landing, with only 3% reported during the en route phase of flight.

Surprisingly, hits between 20,000 and 31,000 feet have been reported, but less than 30 in the last three decades.

The open spaces of an airport can be a magnet for migratory birds and for those resident flocks that decide to make their home next to a runway.

Airport wildlife management teams employ fireworks, lights, lasers, dogs, and birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, and falcons, to try to scare birds away from the airport environment.

While these efforts to keep birds and aircraft safe can reduce the chance of a bird strike, pilots continue to deal with close encounters with birds large and small.

The dangers posed by birds

The chance of a catastrophic accident may be slim, but there have been incidents of bird strikes causing severe damage to the airframe.

None are probably as infamous as the “Miracle on the Hudson” in January 2009, when a US Airways Airbus A320 passenger plane departing from New York’s LaGuardia Airport flew through a flock of Canada Geese.

Both engines failed after ingesting the large birds, and Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles deftly guided the plane to a water landing in the Hudson River, with all crew and passengers safely rescued. safe.

A chicken cannon is used to test an airplane wing.

A chicken cannon is used to test an airplane wing.


The same cannot be said for those aboard two flights in the early 1960s.

After taking off from Boston in October 1960, a Lockheed Electra turboprop lost engine power after flying into a flock of starlings, and 62 people were tragically killed in the accident.

Then in 1962, two birds hit the tail of a Vickers Viscount as the plane descended to 6,000 feet. The impact was so severe that the horizontal stabilizer failed and the plane crashed, killing 17 people.

Those accidents prompted aviation regulators around the world to examine certification standards for commercial aircraft and engines and develop a way to test aircraft components for bird strikes.

The evolution of the chicken cannon.

One of four NRC test guns.  It has a diameter of 6 inches.

One of four NRC test guns. It has a diameter of 6 inches.


Among the organizations leading the way in aircraft testing is the Aerospace Research Center of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). Headquartered in Ottawa, the nation’s capital, it has extensive facilities and resources with expertise in aeronautics research, including aerodynamics, propulsion, aircraft icing, and performance of structures and materials.

After the two accidents in the 1960s, the NRC, along with military experts, regulators, manufacturers, and pilots, established a committee to investigate bird strikes and create a device to test them.

The committee toured facilities in the UK and settled on a design concept from the Royal Aeronautical Establishment: a cannon powered by compressed air.

The ammunition? Bird carcasses weighing between three ounces and eight pounds.

The NRC's 'Super Cannon' has a diameter of 17.25 inches.

The NRC’s ‘Super Cannon’ has a diameter of 17.25 inches.


Aerospace grade poultry

The NRC’s first gun had a diameter of 10 inches, the diameter of the barrel, and was commissioned in 1968 and decommissioned in 2009.

Today, the NRC team has four weapons in its arsenal, with diameters of 3.5 inches, 5 inches and 6 inches, and what may be the largest operational weapon in the world, the Super Cannon, with a diameter of 17.25 inches.

There are two different types of bird strike tests performed at the NRC’s Flight Impact Simulator Facility.

One test focuses on the aircraft’s structural components, such as the windshields, wings and tail sections, and the other test shoots a bird at a running engine.

With aircraft certification standards dictating the size and weight of the bird and the speed of impact on a specific component, it can take the NRC team weeks to prepare for a test.

The tests are carried out at the NRC's flight impact simulator facility.

The tests are carried out at the NRC’s flight impact simulator facility.


“The first part is the calibration of the weapon, to make sure we’re shooting the bird at the required speed,” Azzedine Dadouche, a senior researcher at the NRC, explained in an interview with CNN Travel.

“To do the calibration test, we can use gelatin-based birds, or we can use chickens that we buy from the supermarket. Once we’re in range, we use real birds to finish the calibration, and of course we use real birds.” . birds to do the certification test. The birds, always only the dead, go to the canyon with their feathers, their heads, their legs, everything.”

According to Dadouche, the NRC procures dead bird carcasses from poultry farms and from companies that have access to the necessary birds and have to dispose of them.

“We get those birds from specialized companies that use birds of prey to scare birds away from the airport area. Sometimes small birds die.”

The fastest chicken in the world.

The combination of the air pressure in the tank, the weight of the projectile assembly and the length of the barrel will determine the speed at which the bird impacts the test article, matching the speeds used by the target aircraft during takeoff, initial climb , cruise, approach or landing.

But in the late 1970s, the NRC tested well above those speeds, faster than the speed of sound.

A two-pound jelly-based projectile reached a speed of Mach 1.36, or more than 1,000 mph (about 1,600 kph). Another test with a real two-pound bird was shot at Mach 1.09, more than 800 mph.

That led to a poster, still on the wall of the NRC, that proudly proclaimed the research facility the “Home of the World’s Fastest Chickens.”

dangerous drones

Various aircraft components are tested with the cannons, including windshields.

Various aircraft components are tested with the cannons, including windshields.


There are smaller bird cannons in operation at companies and research labs around the world, but the NRC’s Super Cannon has been given a new mission: drone crash testing.

There has been a proliferation of hobby drones that inept owners operate dangerously close to airports or even on airborne firefighting missions, resulting in all aircraft being grounded.

“This is a very important area that many regulators are working on, because there is (currently) no regulation related to the impact of drones,” said Dadouche.

The NRC Super Cannon has fired drones at aircraft windshields, tail surfaces and wing leading edges at speeds up to 250 knots, or close to 290 mph, and reports of these tests are publicly available.

And while Dadouche and his research team are doing serious work, focused on making the skies safer, he sometimes appreciates the humor in the preparation of bird projectiles.

“One of the projects, I had to go get the chickens from the farm, and I had to drive about 25 kilometers with the chickens in the car. The smell! After that, I didn’t eat chicken for about eight months. And I warned them to the technicians: ‘In the next project, they will go to look for the chickens!'”.

Top image credit: Julian Stratenschulte/Picture Alliance/Getty Images


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