Managing The Grey: Birds

"Refusing a takeoff clearance due to birds on the runway is something I’ve never seen anyone do in my 10 year career, but as our thrust was rising to 50%, I made a command call."

On approach to Sofia, it was noted in the ATIS that there were birds in the vicinity. The CM (Cabin Manager) had also informed me during the cruise that a company departure from here the previous day had suffered a birstrike on their takeoff roll, which led to them performing a high speed RTO (Rejected Takeoff). If you’ve never felt one of these, it’s not a nice experience. The level of deceleration is alarming and very abrupt. Full reverse is selected on the engines along with the maximum braking capability of the carbon wheel brakes. A high speed RTO is only used for very major issues and is something you want to avoid if at all possible… is ingesting a bird into an engine!

We note a few birds as we land, but nothing significant. We do however see our company aircraft from the day before, completing engine run ups in the engineering bay. Never a good sign!

30 minutes later and we find ourselves with the return passengers, back at the holding point being given clearance to line up on Runway 09 at Sofia. A small bizjet that just landed before we lined up reported lots of birds around the threshold, which was around 200m infront of our position now. After finishing reading the lineup checks for the FO (Pilot Flying), I have a good scan out for the birds. There aren’t too many airborne which is deceptive; it looks like there are a substantial amount sitting extremely close to the sides of runways all around the threshold area and beyond.

Although partially hidden by the grass, I see in the region of 60-70 reasonably large looking crows. I’ve never seen this many birds sat this close to a runway.

We’re given takeoff clearance, and the slightly too eager FO immediately stands the thrust levers up to 50%. I get an uncomfortable feeling in my gut and ask him to close them, letting him know I don’t feel happy with the number of birds in that proximity to the runway.

birds active runway
Birds crossing an active runway

I let ATC know we’re not happy and ask if they have a bird scarer vehicle that could clear the birds. They inform us that they do, but it will take a minimum of 5 minutes to get the vehicle there. They ask if we want to depart now or cancel our takeoff. We’re told in the same transmission that the aircraft behind us waiting at the hold point has a very tight slot to make. Nothing like commercial pressure eh!

This is a seemingly grey area; ATC are quite happy to let us depart. Some Pilots may have seen birds like this and still be happy to depart. In my 10-year career I’ve never seen another pilot refuse to depart due to birds, but I’ve also never seen this many birds!

In this situation, I knew I didn’t feel comfortable. We were literally looking at our company aircraft doing engine runs after they ingested a bird the day prior. I’d promised myself when I got to the left-hand seat, I would try stave off commercial pressure and ensure I never do something I wasn’t fully comfortable doing, even if it made me look a tit.

A quick weigh up in my head of ‘We departed 5 minutes later than scheduled’ vs ‘We RTO’d due to a birdstrike, right next to our other aircraft in the maintenance bay because we didn’t want to wait for the bird scarer’ and I knew in my gut what I was going to do. I still ask for the FO’s input and thoughts before sharing mine. It’s always a good idea as he may give un-influenced thoughts, ideas, and suggestions, but in this case his thinking lines up with mine…. despite his earlier attempt to commence the take-off roll.

I let ATC know to cancel the takeoff clearance and suggest we’ll taxi forwards and exit the runway, to allow the aircraft behind to depart if they wished. They agree to the suggestion. Unbeknown to us, the approach controller was also sending an aircraft on long finals around due to our delayed takeoff, which I only noticed later on flight radar.

As we commence taxiing down the runway my mind moves to our passengers and crew, who will now be wondering what’s going on. As I start my quick PA whilst the FO is still taxiing on the runway, the birds start to get airborne. It now looks like well over 100 birds and they’re clustered around the entire aircraft. It’s perfect timing for me, and I simply invite the passengers to look out the window and explain that’s the reason we’re delaying the takeoff.

As we taxi off the runway, we hear the aircraft that had the tight slot refusing to line up until they have the bird scarer out. I have no idea if he was making his own independent decision, or just following off my call, but it felt good to hear this and like I’d made the right call.

5 minutes later the bird scarer came and cleared the space for us and the aircraft with a slot. We successfully departed. After landing back into London, a passenger asked the CC if he could come & have a quick chat in the flight deck.

He introduced himself as one of our engineers who had actually been a passenger on the previous days flight that RTO’d. He showed me pictures of the destroyed engine and explained what a terrifying experience it was for the passengers on board. He shook my hand and thanked me for making the call not to depart.

What I learnt;

It’s times like this where I feel quite proud of the privileged Command position I’ve found myself in and my ability to make calls and decisions on the spot which can have change the course of the day (hopefully for the better). Although I try to keep the gradient in the cockpit as level as possible, I’m happy I followed my gut and told the FO to bring the thrust to idle when he was about to blast off down the runway. Whilst he didn’t do anything wrong, and indeed we may have got airborne and had no issues, I’d like to think my 10 years of experience and following my intuition paid dividends.

I’ll never know if I made the ‘right’ decision on the day, but some advice that I got was it was the decision I made, with the information I had at that time, therefore It was the right one for me.

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