Pulsing Exterior Lights Save Lives: Mitigating Bird Strikes
By John Mandernach
As I approached the aircraft, I stopped short. My heart sank as I noticed blood streaked across the broken windshield and spattered throughout the interior. I was amazed that a bird strike could cause such catastrophic damage. A helicopter air ambulance (HAA) crew had just arrived, quickly ushering a passenger onto their aircraft for medevac. This was the moment that permanently changed the way I viewed bird strikes and convinced me that something had to change.
Based in Las Vegas, Maverick Helicopters is one of the world’s largest helicopter tour operators. Our fleet of 47 helicopters offers scenic flights of the Grand Canyon, Valley of Fire, the Las Vegas Strip, and the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Maverick has been consistently recognized as a leader in aviation safety, having recently been awarded the FAA’s prestigious honor, the Diamond Award, for our dedication to maintenance, training, and aircraft safety. Despite maintaining the highest commitment to safety, our company faced a recurring and serious problem with bird strikes — including six major, near-fatal incidents — between 1999 and 2009.
Bird Strikes on the Rise
Maverick is not alone in dealing with the growing threat of bird strikes. According to the FAA, bird strikes to helicopters have increased more than 700 percent since the early 2000s. Additionally, Helicopter Association International reports that air medical services are now reporting an average of one bird strike every week — and the problem is getting worse. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has warned the rotorcraft industry that the Canada goose population in North America increased from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 3.8 million in 2017. During the same period, the snow goose population increased from 2.1 million to 6.6 million.
Our Wake-Up Calls
In 2007 and 2009 our fleet sustained two near-fatal bird strikes that served as frightening and effective wake-up calls.
On August 27, 2007, a Maverick-owned Airbus H130 helicopter struck an adult golden eagle while approaching Pearce Ferry Airport in Meadview, Arizona. The eagle hit the left-center window post, fracturing it, and blowing out the center and left-pilot windshield, and cracking the right windshield. The eagle continued upwards, striking and fracturing the upper window post above the pilot and continuing to hit the main rotor blades.
One portion of the eagle, the leg and thigh, entered the aircraft, striking the left-center passenger in the face and scratching the pilot’s face. A second passenger in the right-center seat sustained a laceration on her leg caused by broken windshield plastic, requiring stitches. The left-center passenger sustained serious facial injuries and was flown by HAA to Las Vegas. Had the eagle struck the pilot, it would have most likely incapacitated him, causing a fatal accident for all eight people on board.
On August 8, 2009, a Maverick-owned Airbus H130 helicopter struck an adult cormorant while leaving Las Vegas and approaching the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The cormorant hit the left-pilot upper doorpost, breaking the windshield. It then glanced off the door post and continued past the left side of the aircraft. Broken pieces of plastic lacerated the pilot’s chin, later requiring stitches. Similar to our first incident, had the cormorant struck the pilot, it would have most likely incapacitated him, causing a fatal accident to all eight people on board.
The two bird strikes alone cost Maverick more than $500,000 for aircraft damage repairs, lost revenue during suspended service, and medical care for our pilots and passengers.
Following these two near-fatal bird strikes, we realized our bird-strike problem needed to be solved. After the cormorant event, I truly feared the next bird strike would result in human fatalities. We had to do something to try to prevent it.
It is our practice to ensure that our operational safety standards exceed industry standards. After these incidents, Maverick was determined to find a solution to ensure the safety of our pilots and passengers.
Airlines and Pulsing Lights
In 2009, we delved into thorough research and investigation to find a solution. After reviewing data from large commercial aircraft operators and a US Department of Agriculture study, we learned about the proven safety benefits of pulsing the aircraft’s exterior lighting. Initially, the concept of pulsing the aircraft’s exterior lights seemed to be too simple a solution to significantly reduce the lethal threat of bird strikes. However, we quickly found extensive field data and supporting science that shows how pulsing lights maximize aircraft visibility and significantly reduce bird strikes.
The most extensive data reflecting the effectiveness of forward-facing pulsing lights comes from a three-year study by Qantas Airlines. Qantas was the first airline to modify its fleet with the Pulselite System made by Precise Flight. Before installing the Pulselite System fleetwide, Qantas conducted a long-range study of the system’s effectiveness.
Over a period of three years, Qantas conducted a test with its 737-400s and its 737-800s. In summary, the Qantas study concluded that the use of pulsing lights reduced its bird strikes by 30 percent on its 737-400s and 66 percent on its 737-800s.
Upon completion of the study, Qantas outfitted its entire Boeing 737 fleet with the Pulselite System, and it continues to install the system on its new aircraft. This definitely caught our attention.
The second major airline to modify its fleet with forward-facing pulsing lights was Alaska Airlines. According to the FAA and ICAO bird-strike databases (FAA: wildlife.faa.gov; ICAO: icao.int/IBIS), Alaska Airlines experienced a 33.5 percent decrease in bird strikes in the three years following its installation of the pulsing light controller, compared to the three years prior to installation.
More recently, the FAA conducted a study that resulted in an advisory on the danger of steady-state lights attracting birds and wildlife. The study confirmed the effectiveness of pulsing lights in deterring collisions with birds and wildlife.
Pulselite for Helicopters
We contacted Precise Flight, of Bend, Oregon, the manufacturer of the Pulselite System, to discuss outfitting our fleet. Precise Flight’s Pulselite System is the only FAA-certified ircraft’s existing exterior lights. The Pulselite System is a lightweight electrical system controller that allows the pilot to pulse the exterior lights of the aircraft (similar to the alternately pulsing siren lights of a police car, ambulance, or fire truck).
Maverick Helicopters began installation of the Pulselite System onto our fleet of 34 Airbus H130 helicopters in 2009 and 2010. Between 2011 and 2017, we added 13 additional Airbus H130 helicopters, which were also equipped with the system. In addition, we internally adopted a standard operating protocol to engage pulsing lights at all times during operation of the aircraft.
Since installing the Pulselite System and implementing the pulsing protocol, Maverick has operated for eight years (285,000 flight hours) without experiencing a single major bird strike. Table 1 details our flight hours and bird strikes before and after implementation of pulsing landing and taxi lights and the new operating protocol.
During the past eight years, we have experienced an elimination of major bird strikes, which has provided an estimated $1.3 million in savings to Maverick. Our flight operations and flight paths remained consistent before and after our fleet modification. We therefore believe the elimination of near-fatal bird strikes to be the result of pulsing our landing and taxi lights.
As our colleagues in the rotorcraft community continue to share their bird-strike stories, we felt we had an important responsibility to share our company’s best practices with our peers in the industry. If this story helps save at least one life, it is valuable for us to share.
Best Practices and Lessons Learned
The Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference’s Recommended Practice for Bird Strike Avoidance states, “The use of pulse lights and or landing lights is recommended when operating in the vicinity of bird activity.” In addition, Flight Safety Foundation’s Basic Aviation Risk Standard for Offshore Helicopter Operations suggests that aircraft operating in a high-traffic risk environment should be fitted with pulsing lights.
At the 2016 North American Bird Strike Conference, Steve Jangelis, pilot for Delta Air Lines and chairman of the Safety Committee for the Air Line Pilots Association stated, “Pulsing exterior lights has been proven to reduce bird strikes, and it absolutely helps in collision avoidance by maximizing aircraft visibility. I support all technologies that increase flight safety, and pulsing exterior lights is an important one.”
In addition to decreasing bird strikes, we’ve found that alternately pulsing the landing and taxi lights of our aircraft increases visibility and decreases the risk of midair and ground collisions. When we conducted more industry research, we learned that for this reason, pulsing landing lights is a requirement for all U.S. Forest Service firefighting rotorcraft fleets. They are also installed on many law enforcement helicopters, HAAs, and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters.
Maverick Helicopters has learned the valuable lessons of bird-strike mitigation the hard and expensive way. After experiencing both the financial and emotional effects of bird strikes, we believe our success with pulsing the landing and taxi lights of our aircraft can help our colleagues in the rotorcraft industry save money and lives.
John Mandernach is vice president of maintenance for the Maverick Aviation Group. If you have questions or would like to speak to Maverick Helicopters for additional information, please call 702‑261‑0007 (main phone) or 702‑303‑5572 (direct phone), or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Qantas Airlines. Pulselite System B737 Operational Evaluation.