Flying Fish and Other Oddball Midair Collisions

Bald eagles that fly in the vicinity of airliners have been known to lose their grip. (Brian E. Kushner)
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As surprised as the crew of the Gulfstream G-IV must have been when a nine-inch Sheepshead fish slammed into the jet on its takeoff roll, imagine the shock of the fish. In 2014, pilot Nick Toth of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aborted the takeoff from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, when he felt a thud and thought he’d hit an osprey he’d just spotted. Instead, he’d hit the osprey’s lunch. Toth isn’t the only pilot to have had a flight delayed by a midair with a fish. In 1987, an Alaska Airlines 737 leaving Juneau was struck by a fish dropped by an eagle.

There was one even odder collision, says Carla Dove of the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Laboratory. If a military aircraft strikes a bird, the remains are sent to Dove for identification so that the services can add it to a database and better determine risk. She is also sent what she calls “snarge,” the ick scraped from the aircraft, by the Federal Aviation Administration. She got 9,407 samples last year—about 36 midairs a day—and 98 percent were birds. But one year?

“A deer. At 1500 feet,” she says.

What? No!

“And it was in January, right after Christmas.”

A second look confirmed deer DNA but also feathers, from a black vulture, a carrion bird.

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