NTSB: Canada Geese Caused Hudson Splashdown

The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday Canada geese disabled the two engines on US Airways flight 1549, forcing the aircraft to land in the Hudson River. Carla Dove, a researcher at the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, says the information can be used to answer management and engineering questions.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We have bird news now. News of just what kind of bird was sucked into the engines of U.S. Airways flight 1549 last month, leading to the jet's splash landing in the Hudson River. Samples of the bird remains were sent to the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Carla Dove is the lab's program manager, and she joins us to tell us what they found. Carla, what kind of bird was it?

Dr. CARLA DOVE (Program Manager, National Museum of Natural History, Feather Identification Lab): Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: Hi.

Dr. DOVE: Well, I guess there's no big surprise. Actually, we found Canada geese in the samples that were submitted to us for identification.

BLOCK: And that's maybe what you had assumed, based on what the pilot had to say? He described, you know, huge birds all over, filling the entire wind screen of the plane. Large birds, left to right, top to bottom.

Dr. DOVE: Yeah, I mean, that was the, you know, the speculation and the initial identification, but that has to be confirmed. And we were able to do that with the material that we received.

BLOCK: What kind of material did you get, remember, these engines were under water, what did they send you?

Dr. DOVE: We had a variety. We had some tissue samples, some whole feathers and, also, quite a bit of snarge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Yeah, snarge, okay. This is the word we learned from you when we visited you last month. And it basically means, bird remains, bird goo.

Dr. DOVE: Yeah.

BLOCK: When you saw the feathers that they have sent in, could you tell pretty much visually, without having to do the DNA analysis that you eventually did, could you tell Canada geese right away?

Dr. DOVE: Yes, well, once we washed up the samples and took them out into the museum collection and compared them with a similar species, which is the Brant, we were pretty sure that we actually were dealing with Canada geese at that point. But now that we have all of these identification tools available to us, which is our microscopic analysis and our DNA abilities, we wanted to just make sure we could confirm that. And then we had several samples that we wanted to make sure were consistent. And so, it took us a little bit longer to do the complete analysis.

BLOCK: And could you tell how many Canada geese got sucked into those engines?

Dr. DOVE: No, we can't tell that at this point. We are going to do some more work and maybe that will help us answer that.

BLOCK: Now, the NTSB says the engines on this plane, the standard for them is that they should be able to withstand a four-pound bird. I would presume these Canada geese would be far bigger than that.

Dr. DOVE: Yes, I think, I mean the weights of these birds really do vary widely. I think that some of the published reports are from about 5.5 to 10.5 pounds, depending on the individuals. But I think there probably are some larger individuals out there that could probably go over that.

BLOCK: Yeah, and briefly, Carla, with this information, now, that these were Canada geese, what happens now for the folks investigating and trying to think about what happens in the future?

Dr. DOVE: Well, this is the first step. You know, after we get the confirmed identification of the bird, now we'll move on to other management questions and engineering questions that hopefully this data will help them out with, you know, knowing the way that the bird will help the engineers. And then, we're going to do a little bit more analysis, possibly, to try to determine whether or not these birds were from the resident population there or the migratory birds that are wintering in the area. And that might, of course, help with some management control issues.

BLOCK: Carla, thank you very much.

Dr. DOVE: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Carla Dove with the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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