SCIENCE

For Pilots, Birds Are A Greater Threat Than Drones

Even though planes encounter hundreds of drones each year, pilots say wildlife poses a bigger danger

Aug 14, 2015 at 2:48 PM ET

There has been a fair amount of hand-wringing over the growing number of drones in the skies—and indeed, pilots have reported a sharp rise in plane-drone encounters this year.

But of the 650 plane-drone encounters reported to the FAA in 2015, none led to a collision. Birds, on the other hand, have been and continue to be a pilot’s worst nightmare. A Vocativ analysis shows that thousands of birds collide with airplanes every year.

“Drones pose much less threat to air safety than the public thinks; the vast majority are smaller and lighter than many RC (remoted-controlled) planes that have been around for decades,” a pilot and drone hobbyist posted on the pilot forum PPRuNe. “I have seen RC twin jets weighing over 200 lbs traveling (sic) over 250 mph topping out of a loop at 1500′ NEXT to a busy airport and NOBODY thought that was a safety risk. Then out came my little DJI phantom (drone) and everyone panicked!!!!”

Another pilot explains, in the same thread, that the original rulers of the sky pose a far greater hazard to planes than the new robotic threat. “Actually a flock of birds is orders of magnitude more dangerous for an aircraft than a drone,” a user named Ahernar writes. “It’s orders of magnitude bigger so it’s harder to avoid /easier to hit and can do what no drone can—shut down multiple engines.”

Drone spotting by pilots is way up from last year—there were 238 reports for all of last year— and every week seems to bring new reports. But so far anyways, the geese are more problematic for pilots than the gadgets. More than 600 have hit planes in the last 15 years. Here’s how many other kinds of birds struck planes between 1990 and 2014.