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Technology

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! Now It's Just a Plane.

Despite efforts to avoid them, birds still do billions of dollars of damage to aircraft.

By Clara MoskowitzApril 18, 2008 5:00 AM

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By the summer of 2009, when Boeing expects its first new 787 Dreamliner to be delivered to Japan, engineers will be banking on a number of engine safety tests to assure a future filled with uneventful flights. One safety bar that the Dreamliner’s jet engine, the General Electric GEnx, had to pass was the Federal Aviation Administration’s “bird strike” test. To perform the test, technicians at GE’s testing facility in Peebles, Ohio, suspended the engine from a giant stand, its turbines spinning at full force. Then they loaded four thawed goose carcasses into a 50-foot-long steel tube and fired. Together, the birds shot at 205 miles an hour toward the blades of the engine, which tore them to pieces. Not one of the front fan blades broke. The GEnx engine passed the test.

Even in an era of advanced computer modeling, the decade-old test is deemed essential for producing aircraft engines that can withstand the impact (pdf) of collisions with birds, which cause more than a billion dollars’ worth of damage worldwide to civil aircraft every year, according to the Bird Strike Committee USA. FAA tests so far have used real bird carcasses, but some manufacturers and researchers are developing synthetic bird carcasses—less messy and more standardized. Another strategic effort is the U.S. Air Force’s Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard prevention program, or BASH, which collects data to help map routes that prevent planes from sharing airspace with large flocks of birds.

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