ARCHIVED - Happy birthday, NRC bird gun!

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May 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

Long satirized in Royal Canadian Air Farce comedy sketches, the NRC "bird gun" or "chicken cannon" is celebrating its 40th year of helping to make air travel safer for Canadians while saving money for airlines and airline manufacturers. One of some 20 bird guns around the world, NRC's is the oldest in continuous operation.

The NRC bird gun began operations in 1968 and includes leftover parts from the original Avro CF-105 Arrow fighter jet, which had been tested in a lab that later became NRC's Flight Impact Simulator facility. The 10-inch bore, 75-foot long cannon is used to certify that critical aircraft components can withstand high speed bird impacts. Manufacturers must meet specifications set by Transport Canada, Europe's Joint Aviation Authorities, or the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration before delivering aircraft to their customers.

Airplanes and helicopters don't need to be completely "bird proof," but their windshield, wings, tail assembly, propellers and engines must withstand the impact of a bird, while allowing the pilot to land safely despite damage to the aircraft.

"In recent years, our bird gun has also been used to certify 'black boxes' – that is, cockpit voice and flight data recorders – for impact," says Ron Gould, a technical officer at the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research. Gould has operated the gun since 1975.

Birds typically hit aircraft during takeoff or landing, rather than at high altitudes. Collisions usually occur below 1.5 kilometres (5,000 feet), near airports where speed is restricted to a maximum of 350 knots (about 650 km per hour). "For passenger aircraft, certification tests involve firing fully feathered birds into cockpit windshields, the leading edge of a wing, or the horizontal-vertical stabilizer at 350 knots," says Gould. "At this speed, even soft objects like birds can do a lot of damage." He adds that certification tests for military aircraft require even higher impact velocities that exceed the speed of sound (mach 1).

Damage from a bird strike test
Damage from a bird strike test

The bird gun is "elegantly simply," he adds. "It consists of a reservoir and a 40-foot long barrel sitting on a heavy frame. The bridgework underneath allows you to aim it easily. We move the gun up and down and then we move the targets side to side." The NRC bird gun uses compressed air to launch birds, or other projectiles, at pressures ranging from 10 pounds per square inch (psi) up to 200 psi.

"If it's a room temperature test, you just load and shoot," says Gould. "Firing the gun takes only a couple of minutes to bring it up to pressure and let it go. The whole testing procedure – from setting up the target equipment, cameras and lighting to measuring the impact – takes about 20-30 minutes."

About the birds

"We use deceased domestic egg-laying chickens or capons for bird strike tests, and smaller birds for engine ingestion tests," says Ron Gould. "But for calibration work, we use mock chickens made of gelatin and some fibrous material."

"Our birds are fully feathered for the bird strike tests," he adds. "We store them frozen and then thaw them before firing them – we measure their core temperature to prove to our clients that they're completely thawed."

The NRC Flight Impact Simulator facility – home of the world's fastest chickens.
The NRC Flight Impact Simulator facility – home of the world's fastest chickens.

According to Gould, most of the world's bird guns are owned by aircraft manufacturers, but they tend to be used so seldom that it's hard to maintain the expertise needed to operate them. "That's why the NRC facility is popular with manufacturers. We're always open for business. We can see the problems they face, and when we aren't busy firing birds for clients, we improve our procedures."

Today, the NRC bird gun has two ?identical siblings? in the United States. ?I don't know of any other bird gun that has spawned exact duplicates,? says Gould. The first, owned by the Aerospace Division of Pittsburgh Plate Glass Industries in Huntsville, Alabama, was built in August 1984. ?They were doing so much work with us that they decided to build their own gun,? he explains. ?They had been to every bird gun maker in the world, but they chose ours as the best design.? The second is based at a Boeing facility in Seattle.

Did you know?

Since 1968, NRC has fired its 10-inch bore bird gun more than 3,500 times, consuming more than 3.5 tons of chickens in the process. NRC staff once completed 55 shots in 4.5 days. In addition to the 10-inch gun, NRC also operates 3.5-inch and 5-inch cannons for "engine ingestion" tests.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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