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NEWS | Jan. 28, 2009

Air Force works aggressively to reduce bird strikes

By Donna Miles American Forces Press Service

As an ongoing investigation continues on a bird strike that caused a passenger jet's engines to fail last week after takeoff from New York's LaGuardia Airport, Air Force safety officials said they're well-versed on the dangers of bird strikes and aggressively are working to prevent them.

National Transportation Safety Board officials confirmed initial indications that U.S. Airways flight 1549 struck a flock of birds, which were sucked into the engines and caused them to fail. The pilot, former Air Force pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, successfully landed the plane in New York's Hudson River and is credited with saving all 155 people on board.

The incident brought public focus to a problem the Air Force, along with the airline industry, has long struggled to overcome.

Last year alone, the Air Force experienced more than 4,000 bird strikes, Eugene LeBoeuf, chief of the Air Force's Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard, or BASH, program at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., told American Forces Press Service.

Fortunately, none of those bird strikes was classified as a "Class A" accident, one that results in a death or more than $1 million in damages, Mr. LeBoeuf said. But collectively, they cost the Air Force an estimated $35 million.

Bird strikes are on the rise, he said, and present a serious safety issue. The crash of an E-3B Airborne Warning and Control System plane in 1995 after takeoff from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, painfully drove that point home. All 24 crewmembers died when the plane struck a flock of Canada geese just after takeoff.

"When you have a bird strike, it's like throwing a rock into the engine," said Staff Sgt. Paul White, airfield operations supervisor at Andrews AFB, Md. "It stops the turbine from spinning, and that can be catastrophic."

The BASH program works to avert accidents like the one at Elmendorf and last week's incident in New York. Based on a system of "integrated pest management," it aims to keep air bases, airfields and the air space and ground in and around them free of birds and wildlife that can hamper aircraft operations, Mr. LeBoeuf said.

That's a challenge, he said, with more Canada geese taking up permanent residence in the United States, a burgeoning snow goose population and a comeback for the pelican population after DDT and other insecticides were banned.

But birds aren't the only problem, Mr. LeBoeuf said. He's seen it all: deer, coyotes, wild pigs and even alligators finding their way onto Air Force flightlines. "They're mobile speed bumps, and aircraft don't take kindly to them," he said.

Step one in the BASH program is "habitat alteration," which Mr. LeBoeuf defined as making airfields as uninviting as possible. Anything that might serve as a perch is removed, denying birds an elevated place to roost. Potential perches that can't be removed get spikes driven into them.

Meanwhile, low spots in the land where birds can hide or seek water that collects are filled in.

Capt. Michael McCartney, McGuire AFB flight safety chief, said part of the Air Force protocol for habitat management is maintaining the grass around the airfield between 7 to 14 inches in height. Any shorter, and the birds would use it as feeding grounds and any longer the birds would nest in it and feed on the grass seeds.

Air Force safety officials also monitor the migration patterns of geese and other migratory birds. During migration seasons in the spring and fall, the Air Force restricts take-offs and landings during times of the day known for increased bird activity.

These passive approaches reduce the attractiveness of the airfield to birds and are used in conjunction with more active techniques, Captain McCartney said.
Active techniques include a variety of methods, including pyrotechnics and other "noisemakers" to scare the birds away.

"The problem with these methods is the birds get used to them," Captain McCartney said. The solution: bring in the predators.

A team of about 10 falcons and falcon hybrids is dispatched by Falcon Environmental Services, a company contracted by the base to help control bird activity around the airfield. These natural predators deter any geese, starlings and other smaller birds from frequenting the area.

During a demonstration with Salvin, part of the falcon team, a flock of starlings immediately took flight then hid when the falcon approached them. Within minutes, Salvin and his handler Richard Brown had cleared the area. The falcons are released every hour for short flights in various areas around the airfield where flocks of birds have been observed.

Other bases use different techniques. Dan Vredenburgh, a contractor who oversees Andrews Air Force Base's BASH program, uses a variety of techniques, but one of his most effective tools is Bree, a two-tone border collie that chases away birds or other wildlife that might be tempted to take up residence. Mr. Vrendenburg and Bree patrol the base regularly, and he sets her loose when he discovers birds roosting.

"When she takes off, they leave in a hurry," Mr. Vrendenburgh said. "After a couple of times, they probably won't come back."

But no preventive measure will keep birds and other wildlife away indefinitely, Mr. LeBoeuf said. So as a last resort, BASH officials get the permits required to shoot, trap or otherwise remove them from the area.

At Andrews -- home of the 316th Wing as well as the 89th Airlift Wing that flies Air Force One and other aircraft in support of the president, vice president and senior U.S. leaders -- these measures are helping to reduce bird strikes.

"We understand the importance of what we do, and believe we're helping reduce the problem through our efforts," he said.

"There's no question that the BASH program is making a difference," Mr. LeBoeuf said. "It saves lives and aircraft and allows us to maintain our mission. It's a very important program." 

Editor's note: Staff Sgt. Danielle Johnson, 305th Air Mobility Wing public affairs, provided local information for this version of the story.