Birds Don't Fly at Night - Or Do They?

  • Published
  • 421st Fighter Squadron
There we were, 6,000 feet MSL over the White Tank Mountains west of Phoenix, Ariz., on one of my first night sorties in the F-16. It was a beautiful, late, summer night with unrestricted visibility and not a cloud in the sky. The ride had gone according to the brief, minus the usual new-guy mistakes. After an hour and a half of flying, we were ready to put this night sortie under our belt and head home. Back in the radar pattern and setting up for an approach, I was beginning to relax and unwind when suddenly my night was shattered by a deafening noise.  

It was as if someone had taken a Louisville Slugger to the front canopy of my jet. A bird? No way. Birds don't fly at night; pilot training had at least taught me that much. And according to the "standard" motherhood portion of the brief I received just a few hours before, there had to be some other explanation. A bird strike at night? Impossible. Whatever it was, it hit the plane hard enough to leave the vast majority of its innards obscuring my view out the front of the canopy. After the initial expletives of amazement and shock, my IP decided it was time for him to fly as I couldn't see out the front; he quickly took the controls. We pointed toward Luke AFB, Ariz., called the SOF, and landed uneventfully. Upon further inspection back in the chocks, it was indeed a bird with the misfortune of flying in the same piece of sky as me that evening. Since that night, I've been what some would call "bird hunting" in my F-16 on two other occasions; both times well after dark. 

From the start of UPT, I can remember instructors telling me that birds don't fly at night. Throughout my pilot training and RTU years, I had heard in at least 75 percent of my night briefs that birds would not be an issue at night. With that in mind, I set out to do some research and lay to rest the incredible pilot myth of the lack of bird strikes after dark. For the sake of a manageable amount of data, I used bird strikes occurring for two consecutive years as a representative sample. 

From January 1, 2007 through January 1, 2009, there were 10,158 reported bird strikes Air Force-wide. Of those, 9,917 were Class E (minor bird strikes) and 241 were reported as Class A/B/C bird strikes (major bird strikes). For minor bird strikes, we have time-of-day data for 9,166 incidents, with 197 (2 percent) of them occurring at dawn, 4,270 (47 percent) during the day, 477 (5 percent) at dusk, and 4,222 (46 percent) at night. Of the 241 major bird strikes, 2 (<1 percent) were at dawn, 128 (53 percent) during the day, 15 (6 percent) were at dusk, and 96 (40 percent) at night. Of these major bird strikes, only a handful were related to species of birds that we would expect to be nocturnal, such as owls or nighthawks.  

Surprisingly, the most common culprits causing enough damage to fall into the major categories were common ducks and geese. It's important to understand that any bird, if startled or disturbed, will take flight at any time, day or night. In addition to this, major migratory movements of geese and other large birds are often observed at night. As you can see, roughly half the reported bird strikes in the last two years of flying have been at night. Why then is the statement "Birds don't fly at night" so prevalent in night operations flight briefs? 

It's important for pilots to realize that hazards associated with birds don't go away after the sun sets. In fact, the danger to flying operations increases for several reasons. During normal daytime ops, the SOF and airfield management can identify an increase in bird activity and dictate a change in the bird watch condition to limit exposure. At night, it's far more difficult to detect and adjust to a change in bird traffic. Pilots often talk about keeping their visors down when operating at low altitudes during the day for an added layer of protection should a catastrophic frontal bird strike occur. At night, when wearing night vision goggle brackets, it's not possible to add that protection while at low altitude on departure or recovery. Lastly, even minor emergencies with aircraft can become far more dangerous at night. Impact with a bird causing significant damage to flight controls, avionics, the power plant or simply impairing forward visibility on a canopy is far more difficult to handle without good outside visual cues and the ability to easily read checklists. 

A conscious effort must be set forth to educate pilots on the dangers associated with nighttime bird strikes. It's far easier to deal with extraordinary circumstances in flight when you know that they could occur. I challenge you to speak up the next time you hear bird avoidance being shrugged off during a night briefing, before it catches someone off guard and leads to a preventable mishap.