If an airplane hits a bird, it can damage the plane's wings, engines and even force the plane out of the sky. They're called bird strikes. In an exclusive report, NBC 7 Investigates reporter Mari Payton explains how often bird strikes happen at Lindbergh Field.
Documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates show the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has raised concerns about birds congregating in the approach areas near many airports.
However, San Diego has safety tactics in place to protect passengers from the potential danger.
If an airplane hits a bird, it can damage the plane's wings, engines and even force the plane out of the sky.
They're called bird strikes, and they happen more often than you might think.
On Jan. 15, 2009, a US Airways flight departing LaGuardia Airport in New York City made an emergency landing in the Hudson River after a bird strike occurred.
Four years after that big wake up call, airport operators have been told by the FAA to record the number of strikes.
Last year, Jennifer Ewald, an airline pilot, hit a seagull during a flight in Philadelphia that turned the plane's nose inside out.
“A couple of inches higher, and he would have come through the windscreen, and it could have been a much worse outcome. So it was pretty impressive when I saw the amount of damage that one bird could do,” Ewald said.
The FAA reports a total of 45 strikes at Lindbergh Field last year. This year so far, there have been 28.
Mario Caldera with the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority said the number of bird strikes are tracked three different ways.
“It's tracked by the airport operator, by the FAA, as well as the airline,” Caldera said. “We all participate in tracking bird strikes. Usually we'll receive a call from an air traffic controller about a pilot report of a bird strike either in the vicinity of the airport or actually on the runway.”
The most recent incident at Lindbergh Field on record occurred September 26 at 7:30 a.m., when a Southwest plane collided with a Western gull. No damage or injuries resulted from that incident.
Caldera says there have been no reported injuries or fatalities related to strikes at Lindbergh Field.
Unlike Lindbergh Field, other major airports see hundreds of strikes per year.
In 2012, the top three airports for strikes were: Denver International Airport with 504 strikes, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport with 323 strikes and Chicago O-Hare with 251 strikes.
Wildlife biologist Nick Carter is a consultant that has worked with airports all over the world to reduce bird strikes.
He said the FAA often tells airports to do something about the birds, but then doesn't come back and check for compliance
“The FAA doesn't come in and mandate, ‘Okay you need to be doing this,’" Carter said. “They have inspections, where they have compliance inspectors come out, but they come out maybe once a year to check. And most of those people have no idea what an effective wildlife program is because the FAA doesn't train them on how to do wildlife management. So they don't know.”
In 2012, the FAA's inspector general found that, "…27 of 35 airports did not comply with at least 1 or more requirements for their (wildlife) assessments and plans. Yet FAA's inspection documentation indicated that the airports were compliant…"
Carter said the threat cannot be overlooked. “One day it will cause a plane to crash and kill everyone on board. The incident in the Hudson River was the canary in the mine. It's going to happen again at some point in time. It's inevitable,” he said.
In San Diego, Caldera said Lindbergh Field has a program to deal with birds that congregate around their runways.
“We employ a number of different methods, preventative methods. Some of them being all of our buildings, you'll notice, have plastic bird spikes to prevent perching by birds,” Caldera explained.
They also use what they refer to us "scary eye balloons" as a deterrent.
Plus, they use traps to capture birds, which are later released by someone from the USDA in the East County.
Lindbergh Field also works with a wildlife biologist.
“What he does is he just basically comes out during our nesting season and he just makes sure that he counts and he tags them because they are a federally protected species, so he helps out with that,” Caldera said.
Caldera believes Lindbergh Field is taking every precaution necessary to protect the safety of passengers.
The FAA said even though more strikes are reported today, fewer of them cause damage compared to 10 years ago.
In a written statement to NBC News, the FAA stated, "While no plan can eliminate all strikes the mitigation efforts at airports have caused a significant decrease in damaging strikes on airport property nationally.”