An Exclusive Look at Bird Strikes

I really haven’t written much about bird strikes on the blog. Yes, they happen a lot, and they can be dangerous, but the hype after the FAA released its data was certainly overdone. I didn’t see a need to join in. But when someone from Tableau Software, a company that focuses on building visualizations from data, reached out to me to offer an exclusive preview of their visualization of the FAA bird strike data for Cranky readers, it piqued my interest.

I was skeptical at first, because I figured it was just another effort to scare people about bird strikes, but I was wrong. It’s really just a cool way to look at the data in a way that’s easy to digest. Here’s my favorite visualization of all the ones they offered. (And yes, this cool thing is completely interactive – if you’re reading this in email, you’ll need to come to the site.)

Bird Strikes by Damage

Bird Strikes by Damage

You can play with this thing for hours and it never gets old. (Or maybe that’s just the dork in me.) But some things really stick out. As you can see, since 1990, 86.51% of strikes have resulted in no damage whatsoever. If we only look at data since 2005, that number climbs to 90.08%.

A whopping total of .06% of bird strikes destroyed the airplane. That’s 11 airplanes out of the 20,000 that have hit birds since 2005. (And this only goes through 2008, so it doesn’t include the ditching in the Hudson.) You’ll notice that props receive damage more often than jets. I’m guessing that’s because jets digest birds better? But we’re still talking tiny numbers here.

One thing that is interesting is to drag this back out to 1990, and you can see that bird strike reports have gone way up in the last 10 years. Are the birds now out to get us? Yes, but that’s why there’s no airport in Bodega Bay. The reality is that if an airplane is severely damaged or destroyed, that’s always going to get reported. It’s the ones that are minor and cause no damage that probably get ignored. Since the late 1990s, there has clearly been a trend for more people to report those as well. That’s a good thing.

Even with this increase in reports, the total number is probably still being underestimated. There are likely many more minor bird strikes out there that still don’t get reported, so the percentage that cause damage is probably even lower than the already low number you see.

There’s a lot more to play with on the Tableau site at tableausoftware.com/snarge. What is “snarge” you ask? I wanted to know that as well. Apparently that’s what they call the bird remains that are found on the airplane – you know, the stuff they send to the feds to analyze. Nasty. But what a great word.

As you can tell, bird strikes are a threat, but they’re a very small threat in the scheme of things. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored, but it’s important to keep them in perspective.

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