Military News

Friday, April 03, 2015

Grounding birds keeps aircraft airborne

by Airman 1st Class Aaron J. Jenne
4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

4/3/2015 - SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- In 2014, the Air Force experienced a hazard that caused more than $55 million in damage through more than 4,000 instances.

Representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up shop at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base to mitigate the risk of those all too common in-flight hazards - bird strikes.

Team Seymour aircraft experience approximately 60 incidents each year, roughly five of which cause significant damage.

A biologist and two specialists from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services section work around the clock to keep the skies safe through the base's Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program.

"Our primary purpose is to reduce the likelihood of bird aircraft strike incidents," said Chris Willis, USDA APHIS wildlife biologist. "Ninety-two percent of all bird strikes occur below 500 feet, so it is vital that we protect our aircrews on takeoff and landing when they are likely the most at risk."

Willis said he remembers between 90 and 100 bird strikes annually when he began working on base more than 10 years ago. He attributed the decrease in frequency to the success of the BASH program.

Accomplishing the goal of decreasing bird aircraft strikes is both proactive and reactive, Willis said, focusing on removing immediate threats and discouraging the likelihood of future ones.

Each morning, program members drive around the airfield searching for any wildlife that could hinder aircraft operations or cause damage. All findings are dealt with immediately. They commonly set up snares or reinforce fences to keep animals out and collect dead animals that could attract scavengers.

When they see birds in the air, on the land or anywhere in between, BASH members do everything they can clear the area before aircraft activity begins.

Different types of birds react to different stimulants. Fortunately, BASH members have a number of tricks up their sleeves enabling them to handle nearly any scenario.

"We try to be as aggressive as we can, using all the available tools in our tool box," said Dennis Lewis, USDA APHIS wildlife specialist. "If you throw a variety of things at them, it's going to get their attention a little better."

Their main harassment tool, the propane cannon, bellows a harmless but effective report upon command. One is mounted on each of their trucks, and several are positioned around the flightline, as well.

The cannon is convenient and inexpensive to operate, but it isn't always the most effective, sometimes only causing birds to change directions briefly or having no effect at all. When this happens, the USDA APHIS Wildlife Services member may choose to use a form of pyrotechnics propelled from a shotgun or handgun.

"If I see a vulture, nine times out of 10, I can get a good reaction from the cannon, but birds get habituated to our harassment, and they might not respond to the cannon alone," Lewis said. "We need to be versatile and aggressive to keep the skies safe."

As a last resort, when all harassment techniques have been exhausted, they do have licenses to use lethal means to protect aircraft and aircrews.

When they aren't busy reacting to immediate threats, they prepare for tomorrow's. Spikes are mounted on lights and towers to discourage large birds from landing or roosting there.

"A big problem for aircraft is turkey vultures," Willis said. "They like to congregate on towers. It doesn't matter how much we harass them, they'll just come back after we leave. We had to change our strategy and do some research to find an effective way to deal with them."

They found hanging stuffed vultures upside down near the roosting sites to be an effective deterrent.

While harassment and deterrence are effective, Lewis said the most powerful weapons in their arsenal are communication and coordination: effectively communicating their mission and coordinating their efforts across the base and in the outlying community.

Samantha Whitworth, USDA APHIS wildlife specialist, works part time at the City of Goldsboro Water Reclamation Facility, whose water covers 200 acres of land.

"It's great to work with the base and the city," Whitworth said. "It really is awesome that they care so much about the installation - protecting its jets and the safety of its Airmen. Just harassing birds on the base only goes so far, but working on the other side of the fence increases the impact."

The result of working with the city is two-fold, Whitworth said. It allows BASH members to clear a larger airspace, creating a buffer that makes it less likely for birds to even come on the installation.

In a similar manner, Willis has reached out to community members who border the installation. He said he has explained how land management can affect bird prevalence and negatively impact flight safety.

"I know every single family that has land that borders the base," Willis said. "We see some great appreciation for the military. They have adapted farming and land management practices that attract less birds, and it is really amazing how willing they are to make changes to keep our guys safe."

Not everyone approves of harassing animals, but the USDA APHIS Wildlife Services team says it's a necessary precaution intended to keep aircrews safe.

"That's definitely the most controversial part of our job," Lewis said. "A lot of people want us to leave the wildlife alone. They don't realize the risk wildlife poses to jets. We don't enjoy harassing birds, but we've got to do it to protect our jets and their crews. That's our number one goal and we'll continue to do everything in our power to keep the skies safe for birds and people."

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