The Cases of Fish Hitting Airplanes

June 18, 2021

Edited image adding a fish over an airplane taking off.

Is there a new danger in the sky? While bird strikes are a dangerous and regular threat to aircraft landing and departing a runway, there have been actual cases of fish striking an aircraft during these critical phases of flight. But don’t worry. It is very rare.

In September 2013, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aircraft at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Bay, Florida, was just about to take off when it hit something. The pilot aborted the takeoff and returned the aircraft to a hangar to get it inspected.

The crew believed the strike was with an osprey, as they had seen the bird in front of the aircraft prior to the hit. But when they tried to find the remains of the bird on the runway, nothing was discovered. What they did find was the body of a sheepshead fish.

It was believed that the osprey dropped the fish as it tried to get out of the way of the plane as it was taking off. The remains of the fish were sent to the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab, a lab that identifies the species of bird that have been struck by an aircraft. They were looking at a fish this time, and they did confirm that the sheepshead had been struck by the NOAA aircraft before takeoff.

A similar event happened in 1987 in Juneau, Alaska, when an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 struck a fish in mid-air after takeoff. When the aircraft was inspected, a mechanic discovered scales attached to the plane but no damage.

The pilot of the 737 said a bald eagle holding a fish in its talons crossed the jet’s path 400 feet past the end of the runway and dropped the fish, which struck the aircraft. Neither the airplane nor the eagle sustained any damage from the encounter. Unfortunately, the fish wasn’t so lucky.

While these two events are often cited as the only two fish strikes ever recorded with an airplane, there does appear to be one much older occurrence.

In 1935, a pilot for Pan American Airways, flying a route from Brownsville, Texas, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, reported seeing a flock of gulls ahead of the plane around Veracruz, Mexico. When one of the birds flew overhead, the pilot stated that he saw a fish splatter against the glass cockpit of the propeller-driven aircraft.

And one more odd aircraft strike

In November 2020, a Boeing 737–700 Alaska Airlines flight (again) was landing at Yakutat Airport in southeast Alaska when the pilots spotted a female bear and its cub crossing the runway. The nose gear missed the bears, but the female bear was struck by the cowling (the removable cover of the engine) on the left side of the aircraft, killing the bear. The cub was unharmed.

Crews at the airport had cleared the runway about 10 minutes prior to the flight landing and saw no wildlife. While deer and caribou had previously been reported as being hit by aircraft in Alaska, this was believed to be the first time a plane had hit a bear.

Sources: Washington Post, New York Times, Fort Lauderdale News, The Mercury News

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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