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Give thanks for the fowl shot into jet engines in the name of safety

Key Points
  • FAA and other aviation safety agencies require the tests.
  • Birds including pheasants are used in the test.
  • The birds are shot into engines using pressurized air.
A flock of birds near a Delta plane as it lands at Reagan International Airport in Washington, DC.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP | Getty Images

As you make your way home from a turkey-filled weekend, spare a thought for some late birds that didn't even make it to the table: the fowl that jet-engine makers shoot into airplane engines to ensure your flight is a safe one.

Long before your airplane's engines are installed, manufacturers, such as General Electric and United Technologies unit Pratt & Whitney, shoot dozens of bird carcasses into jet engines from giant air guns to test the machinery's ability to safely ingest such animals without disrupting the takeoff and climb.

The tests, mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation safety agencies, are crucial to ensuring safe flying for passengers, as birds flock near airports and pose a threat to planes.

In what is perhaps the most famous case, on Jan. 15, 2009, the twin engines of a U.S. Airways Airbus A320 lost thrust after colliding with a flock of Canada geese moments after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport. Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger safely landed the plane in what became known as the "Miracle on the Hudson" as all 155 people on board survived.

How it works

Because engines are often tested on the ground, and not while flying, engine makers need to simulate the speed with which an aircraft would slam into birds during takeoff and its climb. That's where pneumatic barrels come in. Using pressurized air, the bird carcass is shot at engines at speeds of around 250 to 350 feet per second, according to GE. (A military engine test required speeds of 750 feet per second.)

Pratt & Whitney uses pheasants from farms, a spokeswoman said. They are frozen for shipping and then thawed before testing.

The barrel at GE's engine-testing center in Ohio is 50 feet long. GE said it has tested engines for a variety of bird sizes, including a Canada goose. Four to six birds are used for a medium-bird test, for those weighing 2.5 pounds. GE purchases the frozen carcasses of birds including geese, ducks and gulls through federal programs because they are often protected species.

These birds may have been roadkill, or kills taken from poachers when no longer needed as evidence, or those trapped by government agencies because they had become aggressive and dangerous in public areas, the company said. GE does not use live birds in its testing it said.

"The feathers stay" on the bird when they are shot into the engine, said a GE spokesman.

Costly problem

The FAA logged 166,276 wildlife strikes with civil aircraft between 1990 and 2015, nearly 97 percent of them from birds. Damage to aircraft occurred in just under 9 percent of the cases.

They can be costly. In that period, wildlife strikes cost $731 million in damages and lost revenue over that time period, according to the FAA.

One of many tests

The bird strike tests are just one of several brutal trials engine manufacturers use.

Engineers simulate heavy hailstorms, ice and other extreme conditions and record how engines perform. In blade-off testing, they test the movement of a rapidly-turning fan blade. Such a projectile could be catastrophic if it tore through the fuselage.