Fact Check

Pilot Had Emotional Reaction When He Learned Why Birds Flew Alongside His Plane?

A real picture showing birds appearing to fly near a British Airways airplane was shared on Facebook with an inspiring story. Snopes found answers.

Published March 27, 2024

 (Adam Samu / AIRportal.hu)
Image Via Adam Samu / AIRportal.hu
Claim:
A story accurately retells an incident in which a British Airways pilot named Jason had an emotional reaction after he discovered why birds were flying alongside his airplane.

In March 2024, Snopes looked for the answers about a story claiming a pilot reacted emotionally after realizing why a flock of birds started flying next to his airplane. Readers asked about the tale via email. The article's headline from the happiness-life.org website shared by one reader read, "The pilot's emotional reaction when he discovered why birds were flying alongside the plane."

The story featured a striking photo of hundreds of birds appearing to surround a British Airways flight. Such photos might lead some readers to think of bird strikes — a common aviation incident in which airplanes and birds come into contact with each other. About 90 percent of bird strikes take place at or near airports, usually during takeoff or landing, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

One of the most famous bird-strike incidents was US Airways Flight 1549 — the flight Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed safely in the Hudson River in 2009.

Snopes looked for answers and found the truth regarding both the viral story and the photo.

The Viral Story of the 'Emotional' Pilot

The story on happiness-life.org went as follows:

Jason, a pilot with years of experience, has encountered numerous unexpected situations throughout his career, forcing him to think quickly to find solutions.

A specific circumstance, though, turned him into a hero.

During a recent flight, Jason found himself in a sudden attack by a massive group of birds. These birds were causing loud noises by hitting the plane's windows.

Jason was shocked by the unusual sight he saw. He realized the passengers' lives were in danger, so he attempted to escape the angry birds, but it was more difficult than he expected.

He lost control of the plane and had to turn back to the airport. The attacks intensified, leading him to attempt a new maneuver — landing on water.

No passenger was injured, even though the landing was rough.

Rescuers reached the location and sent tugboats to retrieve the plane from the water. All the passengers were safely rescued, but the rescue operation was delayed due to ongoing bird attacks. The rescue team attempted to scare the birds away, but they persisted, and the reason behind their behavior remained unknown.

The reason behind the bird attack on the plane was uncovered through an investigation. It was discovered that a passenger was attempting to smuggle birds and was engaged in the illegal trade of exotic birds.

After everything came to an end and Jason saw that everyone was safe, a sense of relief washed over him and tears of happiness streamed down his face. Not only had he managed to prevent a disaster, but he had also uncovered an illegal trade.

However, this story was nothing but fiction, as some readers might have been able to gather from the fact the pilot "Jason" had no last name. Also, the story did not once mention British Airways, despite the logo for the airline being visible in the striking photo.

This story told kind of tale known as glurge — a sentimental or heart-rending story undermining its own inspirational message by distorting or ignoring the facts.

Snopes located similar stories also using the same photo on other obscure blogs and as the thumbnail image for many different YouTube videos. One other untrue article displayed another fictional headline reading, "British Airways planes carrying Christians attacked by strange birds in air."

The British Airways-Birds Photo

As for the photo of the birds and the British Airways flight, a reverse-image search using the handy website TinEye.com led to thousands of results. The most helpful result was a page on airliners.net. According to the caption on the page, the photo was captured by Adam Samu on June 15, 2004. It showed a British Airways Boeing 757-236 taking off at Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport in Hungary.

In 2018, The Observers on France24.com reported that Samu manages the aviation website AIRportal.hu. They also published a statement from Samu, who said the photo was "a bit of an optical illusion" in that the birds were not as close to the airplane as they may have appeared to be:

The photo was taken at Budapest Airport, at runway 31R. It can't be recent, because the plane is a Boeing 757, which has been retired from British Airways' fleet for some years now. The birds were on the grass at the airport, and when the plane arrived for take-off, they all of a sudden took flight.

The photo is, in fact, a bit of an optical illusion: the birds are not so close to the plane. They are starlings, which are very common in Hungary. They range in size from 19 to 23 centimetres…so you can see that when compared to the size of the plane, they were not so close to it when it took off. And I can confirm that no bird was hit by the plane and no person was injured.

Snopes contacted Samu to ask about the photo and to see whether he was aware of the fact it was appearing on obscure blogs and as thumbnail images for YouTube videos. This story will be updated if a response is received. 

Sources

AIRportal.hu. https://airportal.hu/.

"Bird and Wildlife Strikes." Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), 27 Sept. 2017, https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/active-pilots/safety-and-technique/bird-and-wildlife-strikes.

Capron, Alexandre. "No, a Flock of Birds Did Not Attack an Airplane." The Observers - France 24, 5 Oct. 2018, https://observers.france24.com/en/20181005-debunked-hoax-birds-attack-aeroplane.

Evon, Dan. "Snopes Tips: A Guide To Performing Reverse Image Searches." Snopes, 22 Mar. 2022, https://www.snopes.com//articles/400681/how-to-perform-reverse-image-searches/.

Hajela, Deepti, and Tom Foreman Jr. "For 'Miracle' Flight Survivors, a Decade of Thankfulness." The Associated Press, 16 Jan. 2019, https://apnews.com/general-news-c61e2518b15e40c88e9f8e42b64e9ac2.

Huberman, Bond, and David Emery. "Snopestionary: What Does 'Glurge' Mean?" Snopes, 21 Aug. 2021, https://www.snopes.com//articles/363643/what-does-glurge-mean/.

Semu, Adam. "Aviation Photo #0620854 Boeing 757-236 - British Airways." Airliners.net, 15 June 2004, https://www.airliners.net/photo/British-Airways/Boeing-757-236/620854/L.

TinEye Reverse Image Search. https://tineye.com/.

"US Airways Flight 1549." Britannica.com, https://www.britannica.com/topic/US-Airways-Flight-1549-incident.

Jordan Liles is a Senior Reporter who has been with Snopes since 2016.

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