When Captain Chesley Sullenberger miraculously piloted U.S. Airways flight 1549 to a belly landing on New York’s Hudson River Jan. 15 he not only saved the lives of every passenger on board. He also inadvertently drew attention to what, according to most preliminary investigations, caused the plane’s engine failure: a bird strike.
While the U.S. Airways incident has shone a spotlight on the hazard wildlife collisions pose to aircraft, for Glacier Park International Airport, preventing animals from interfering with the flight paths of incoming and outgoing planes is just business as usual – particularly in Northwest Montana, an area known for its robust wildlife population.
“Birds and wildlife are not news to airports,” Airport Director Cindi Martin said. “We’ve been dealing with that since there have been flights, since the Wright brothers.”
The Glacier Airport staff takes steps daily to prevent animals – from Canada geese to coyotes to eagles – from interfering with air traffic, and has developed wildlife mitigation and hazing procedures adapted specifically to the animals of the Flathead. With no wildlife-related incidents in her tenure running the airport, Martin judges their strategy a success thus far. Glacier Airport does not record bird strikes; pilots report them to their airlines, but Martin said she has not even had a conversation with a flight crew about a bird strike or other wildlife collision occurring there.
“It’s part of our operational safety,” she added. “We don’t have a bird problem and I think it’s because we’re proactive.”
The occurrence of bird strikes like the one believed to have taken down U.S. Airways flight 1549 is rising. In 1990 2,051 bird strikes were recorded nationally, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. In 2007, the number of bird strikes jumped up to 9,631. But out of those figures, the number of substantial strikes, which are defined as damaging an aircraft’s structural integrity, performance or flight characteristics, has remained relatively static. In 1990, 112 substantial bird strikes were recorded, while in 2007 that number rose to 121, according to the FAA, down from a high of 199 in 1996.
The rise in bird strikes may not be as dramatic as it appears. Bird populations have increased in recent years, due mainly to successful conservation programs and reductions in the use of pesticides. The reporting of bird strikes has become more widespread as well, which could account for some of the increase on the FAA’s database.
But the cost of wildlife-aircraft collisions can be substantial, and not just in dollars. More than 400 people have died worldwide as a result of such collisions since the first recorded fatality occurred in 1912. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Program, which manages wildlife problems at airports, estimates collisions and bird strikes cause more than $390 million in damage to civil aircraft in the U.S. annually, and more than $100 million to military aircraft. Nor do those numbers account for the indirect costs of delays and flight changes caused by wildlife-aircraft collisions.
Airports located in the Eastern and Southeastern U.S. record the most incidents of collisions between animals and aircraft, and these are areas where Martin spent much of her earlier career. In that time, she has witnessed the aviation industry evolve as it has learned more about how to dissuade wildlife from wanting to be near runways.
For example, in the mid-1990s, Martin was working at an airport in Panama City, Fla., where huge flocks of Mourning Doves were disrupting flights. The staff was stumped until a USDA investigator realized maintenance workers had been sprinkling around the runway an FAA-approved seed mix containing Brown Top Millet – one of the doves’ favorite foods. The dove problem resolved quickly when staff ceased sprinkling birdseed around the runway – and that seed mix is no longer approved by the FAA.
Situated in the middle of the valley, Glacier does not share many of the bird problems confronting airports located closer to water and marshland. Canada geese cause the biggest nuisance, Martin said, particularly in the late summer and fall when the seeds of crops planted on the farms surrounding the airport drop to the ground, attracting birds – especially geese and seagulls. Pheasant and grouse can cause problems too, but birds that flock are capable of inflicting the most damage to an aircraft.
The Glacier Airport staff employs a pyrotechnic shot, which they refer to as “whizzers and bangers,” to scare the birds away. Fired out of a shotgun or starter pistol, the shot squeals like a firework, then explodes harmlessly. Maintenance staff sometimes drive slowly at flocks in their trucks and honk their horns until the birds leave, or turn air horns on them.
“We just make it uncomfortable for them to be here,” Martin said. “You can’t do the same thing all the time because they do acclimate, so we mix it up.”
Large raptors hate the whizzers and bangers.
“One thing we’ve noticed with the hawks is they take these whizzers and bangers personally,” Martin said. “It bothers them enough to keep them off their food source.”
But seagulls are acclimated to people and are more stubborn. The airport staff must depredate a few seagulls and leave their carcasses out for remaining birds to get the message. “It’s not a pleasant thing to do but it’s necessary to move them off,” Martin said.
The tall fences surrounding Glacier Airport keep out large game, and the airport has a permit to take game and foul out of season if necessary. But it’s not the animals getting over the fence that cause problems.
“We do have a problem with coyotes digging under the fence,” Martin said. “We do a perimeter check every day, so we check for holes being dug.”
On one hand, the airport welcomes the coyotes, which come for the gophers, another nuisance for maintenance workers, but the coyotes often run across the runway pavement, making a hazard of themselves. Airport staff has never killed a coyote, and they usually leave after minimal hazing via the hole they dug, Martin said.
“They’re very clever,” she added. “They know when they’re not welcome and they know how they got in.”
Also critical to keeping the airport safe is staying abreast of land use surrounding it. For example, a new quarry dug near the airport that fills with water could attract large flocks of birds, so Martin works with the Flathead County Planning Department to stay aware of new developments and land uses in the airport’s overlay district.
The increase in bird strikes worldwide is spurring interest in advancing technologies like radar to detect flocks, or strobe lights. Some of these new strategies are being tested at airports in Washington, D.C. and New York, but have a long way to go before their use becomes widespread. Martin is keeping track of these developments, but for now plans to stick with what works.
“I don’t think we’ll ever actually win that battle,” Martin said. “It will always be a part of what we do out here, and I imagine it will be a part of what every airport does on a regular basis.”
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