Sunday, January 25, 2009

Air Force Works Aggressively to Reduce Bird Strikes

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, 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 Air Force Base, Alaska, painfully drove that point home. All 24 crew members 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 Air Force Staff Sgt. Paul White, airfield operations supervisor at Andrews Air Force Base, 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, LeBoeuf explained.

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, 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 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.

Dan Vredenburgh, a contractor who oversees Andrews Air Force Base's BASH program, follows the Air Force protocol of ensuring grass around the airfield is maintained between 7 and 14 inches. That's too short for ground birds to nest in, but too long for them to feel safe feeding in, he explained.

"These are the benign approaches, but if they don't work, we turn to more active techniques," LeBoeuf said. In a word, he defined that as "harassment."

Vredenburgh, for example, has a whole list of tricks to make Andrews unwelcoming to seagulls, blackbirds, starlings, turkey vultures, cowbirds, ducks and geese that frequent the region.

He fires off pyrotechnics and propane cannons as needed to scare birds from the 4,320-acre base. 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. 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," Vrendenburgh said. "After a couple of times, they probably won't come back."

Other bases use different techniques. The Royal Air Force base at Mildenhall in England, for example, relies on a Moroccan lanner hawk named Goldie to ward off unwanted birds. At Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, a luger falcon named Mustang helps to keep unwanted birds at bay.

But no preventive measure will keep birds and other wildlife away indefinitely, 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.

Andrews reported 20 bird strikes last year, down from 30 in fiscal 2007 and an average of about 34 a year in past years, Vredenburgh said. Nearly all involved small birds, and none inflicted major aircraft damage or forced an emergency landing.

"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," LeBoeuf said. "It saves lives and aircraft and allows us to maintain our mission. It's a very important program."
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
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