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America's Worst Bird Strike

  • Published
  • By Rita Hess
  • Staff Writer

I was not quite three years old when the plane crashed. I don't remember the mishap, of course, and I don't recall hearing about it in all the years since. But then I began to research bird strikes and there it was: the story of the worst bird strike in American history. While it's a tragic tale, it spawned many positive changes in aviation--specifically, it changed the way we address bird strike hazards.

The Mishap

Just before six o'clock on a crisp October evening in 1960, Eastern Airlines flight 375--a propeller driven Lockheed L-188 Electra--left Logan Airport in Boston headed for Philadelphia and points south. Among the passengers were 15 Marine recruits bound for training camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Some of the recruits' families were watching from an observation deck as the plane departed.

Just six seconds after takeoff, a flock of starlings (estimates say it was 20,000 birds) suddenly flew into the aircraft's path. Birds ingested into the engines caused two engines to lose power and a third one to flame out.

At an altitude of only a few hundred feet, the plane rolled to the left and crashed almost vertically into the shallow water in Winthrop Bay, killing 62 people aboard the aircraft. Only 10 people survived, most of them critically injured.

Witnesses say the mishap scene was horrific. The plane broke apart on impact, and pieces of it were embedded into the mud. What was left of the fuselage was soon submerged just below the surface of the water.

The debris field was only several hundred yards offshore, and small watercraft in the area rushed to search for survivors. Local residents from shore also made a valiant effort, wading into mud that was several feet deep and swimming out to retrieve bodies they found floating in the water--most still strapped into their seats. The seats and bodies were pulled to shore and lined up on the beach until a temporary morgue could be established.

One Boston woman vividly remembers the scene.

I was in the fourth grade at the time of the crash. My father was the Harbor Master in charge of the cleanup. My grandparents' house on Johnson Avenue had a large open yard on the water. It was used for bringing bodies up onto. Many [people] went into their houses to get towels, sheets, socks, and other items. I couldn't sleep in that house without nightmares and visions of the crash. Debris scattered the shoreline for weeks.

The Aftermath

A thorough investigation into the crash of Eastern Airlines flight 375 began quickly. Testing the reassembled wreckage revealed that structural failure was not to blame. Another test (one that would never be repeated today, for obvious reasons) involved tossing live birds into engines to measure the power loss. The starlings were even autopsied to determine their cause of death (more than 100 birds were found dead on the runway after the crash). Ultimately, post-mishap aircraft simulator tests concluded that, under identical conditions, pilots could not have saved the plane due to the number of birds involved.

An interesting finding--although not directly related to the bird strike--was that more people likely survived the impact but drowned because of a design flaw in the seat. The seats detached from the aircraft floor when the plane hit the water, causing the seats to hurl forward and land face down in the water with the victims still strapped in.

The Lessons

In the wake of the mishap, the Civil Aeronautics Board (the predecessor of the National Transportation Safety Board) recommended that steps be taken to reduce the damage caused by bird strikes to turbine engines, and that ways be found to reduce the populations of birds around airports. The results included minimum ingestion standards for propeller driven and later jet aircraft, plus the start of comprehensive, standardized airport wildlife management plans.

The loss of Eastern Airlines flight 375 still stands--54 years later--as the deadliest mishap in airline history caused by a bird strike. But thanks to what was learned in the crash investigation, many lives have been spared since. Today, professionals in military and civil aviation fields continue looking for ways to minimize the risks of bird strikes. Technology may ultimately play a role, as improvements to bird-detection radar show promise. However, until better solutions are developed, we will continue to rely on aircrews, tower controllers, airfield management, and wildlife management contractors who work hard every day to keep Airmen--and the public--safe.

In 2009, US Airways flight 1549, captained by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport, struck a flock of Canada geese, and soon went down in the Hudson River. The incident made headlines around the world but for a very different reason: all 155 occupants survived.