Safety in the skies

LIHUE — Birds always have the right of way in Kauai skies.

That’s what Blue Hawaiian helicopter pilot Brodi Brodigan tells the people he escorts around the island, and that’s the motto of the company’s chief operating officer, David Griffin.

“We do everything that we can to avoid the birds,” Griffin said. “We stay out of the birds’ way.”

The easiest method of avoiding bird collisions is to adjust the altitude of the flight. Griffin said since different birds are more active on the island in different seasons, the pilots will change altitudes depending on which birds are more prevalent at that time.

“The pilots are sensitive” to bird habits, Griffin said.

Brodigan was very aware of the birds during his Thursday afternoon flight, and as he introduced his passengers to the Na Pali Coast, dipping down towards Kalalau Beach, he prepared them for a possible encounter.

“If we take a sharp turn to the left or the right, we’re avoiding the birds,” Brodigan told his passengers. “They have the right-of-way up here.”

Even though they make it a priority not to strike birds, Griffin said it sometimes happens, but not often.

“It happens,” Griffin said, “and when it does we take a conservative approach. We tell the pilots to assess the situation and land as soon as possible if they feel there’s a safety concern.”

Anyone who takes to the skies has the chance of a feathery collision. And according to a recent article by The Associated Press, the odds have risen more than 700 percent since the early 2000s.

That percentage doesn’t tell the whole story, though.

Bird strike data is collected online, through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wildlife Strike Database. Submitting information to that database is not required after an aircraft strikes a bird.

Pilots nationwide have started reporting more bird strikes since January 2009, however, when U.S. Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River after the airplane’s two engines sucked in geese.

“There’s more awareness among pilots and they’re reporting bird strikes more,” Griffin said.

Helicopters are notorious for being more vulnerable after hitting a bird during flight.

“We are getting more severe damage, more frequent cases of birds penetrating the windshield and the risk of pilot incapacitation, that could cause fatalities for everybody there,” FAA helicopter safety engineer Gary Roach told the FAA rulemaking advisory committee at a recent meeting, according to AP.

Currently, FAA regulations require airliner windshields to withstand the impact of a 4-pound bird and the tail to withstand an 8-pound bird. For helicopters weighing more than 7,000 pounds, windshields must withstand a 2.2 pound bird. There are no bird-strike safety standards for helicopters weighing less than 7,000 pounds.

That includes about 90 percent of the U.S. helicopter fleet. All tour and medical helicopters fall into that category.

Roach and other colleagues at the FAA are encouraging stronger oversight for helicopter design and operation standards in order to prevent bird strikes.

Blue Hawaiian, however, has already taken steps to make their helicopters safer for their passengers.

“Blue Hawaiian put new windows, so they’re more bird resistant and stronger,” Griffin said. “We went to a heavier Plexiglass window that’s stronger and we started that a couple of years ago.”

During Thursday afternoon’s cruise through Kauai skies, a few birds coasted far below the helicopter.

They kept their distance from the helicopters that day, and were just little dots seen floating against the cliffs, barely visible except for the moments when the sun highlighted their white feathers.

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