Chicken Cannons: How Aviation Companies Simulate Bird Strikes

Chicken Cannons: How Aviation Companies Simulate Bird Strikes

May 23, 2023 News by Gary Searing

A bizarre yet accurate method used to plan and prepare for high-speed bird encounters.

On January 15, 2009, US Airways flight 1549 flew through a flock of geese shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport in New York. Both of the Airbus A320’s engines lost power. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles managed to safely land the aircraft on the Hudson River near midtown Manhattan. Incredibly, all 155 people onboard survived.

The incident known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” is an extreme example of the devastating damage that bird strikes can cause to an aircraft. Most do not cause any significant damage, but bird strikes still present a threat to life and safety.

As we have previously reported, an average of 47 bird strikes occur daily in the United States. So how does the aviation industry prepare for bird strikes? While difficult to simulate the real-world conditions involved, aviation experts have developed an innovative device to test the potential impacts of high-speed bird encounters—the chicken cannon.

History of the chicken cannon

Orville Wright reported the first bird strike in 1905, and not surprisingly, the rate of these incidents has increased over time as the volume of cargo and air travel has climbed. While they have occurred at various altitudes, bird strikes are most common during take-off and landing.

The Civil Aeronautics Administration, an American federal agency that preceded the Federal Aviation Administration, developed the first chicken gun in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1940s. The device could launch a chicken carcass weighing 7 kilograms at 643 kilometers per hour. In the 1950s and 60s, chicken cannons were also built by both the de Havilland Aircraft Company and the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

The Aerospace Research Centre of the National Research Council of Canada developed its own chicken cannon in 1967 following two bird strike-related crashes in which 79 lives were lost. The cannon began being used for testing in 1968 and was in operation up until 2009. Its base design was used as a model for the Flight Impact Simulator Facility located at the Ottawa Airport.

In 1972, a chicken gun was created by the United States Air Force at Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee. Bird strikes had become a concern during the Vietnam War, as the F-11 Aardvark, which often flew at low altitudes but high speed, was prone to bird encounters. The Air Force’s cannon could fire a chicken at over 1,100 kilometers per hour. It was in use for over three decades.

The first chicken cannons were powered by compressed air and fired only dead chickens. In the modern era, bird strike exercises are conducted using either chicken carcasses or artificial birds made of gelatin or a similar substance.

Use in certification testing

Chicken cannons help test the structural components of an aircraft, like the wing and tail sections, glass canopies, and windshields, and simulate the potential impact on operating engines. The cannons must first be appropriately calibrated to ensure that the artificial bird is firing at speeds similar to real conditions during take-off, approach, and landing.

The most common users of chicken cannons are aircraft manufacturers and the military. These tests are relied upon for demonstrating compliance with specifications necessary for certification. Technology has advanced such that high-speed camera footage that captures each moment and impact on the aircraft can be analyzed to identify any deficiencies that require correction to achieve airworthiness.


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