Leader Blues

Monday, January 26, 2009

TOP STORY>>Base repels nuisance birds

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Nothing good happens when a bird and an airplane occupy the same space at the same time, as evidenced Jan. 15th when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 carrying 155 passengers and crew apparently struck a flock of birds—probably Canada geese—and the pilot was forced to ditch the plane in the Hudson River.

The good new is that all passengers and crew were rescued after a harrowing few minutes.

“That’s not going to happen here,” said Maj. Joel Stephens. “The proper controls are in place and we check daily.”

At Little Rock Air Force Base, Stephens is part of a small group of airmen responsible for minimizing the number of bird strikes to the dozens of C-130s based there, according to Lt. Col. Chip Brown, chief of safety for the 19th Airlift Wing.

“Bird strikes are not a problem (here), but they do occur,” said Stephens, chief of flying safety.

They also manage to minimize deer on the runway.

He said there could be four or five bird strikes a day during the peak season. Most aren’t discovered until the aircraft land for the evening and crew and maintainers do an inspection.

In recent memory, bird strikes have caused no fatalities or lost aircraft at the base.

The airfield is the busiest single-runway base in the Air Force, Brown said.

Brown said that when Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz arrived at the base, he ordered an increase in bird awareness and avoidance.

He wanted to go above and beyond,” Brown said.

About 70 percent of all known bird strikes occur below 2,000 feet above the ground, Stephens said, so commercial aircraft have high exposure only on taking off and landing.

At the base, however, where training all C-130 crews for the U.S. armed forces and for 34 allied nations occurs, it’s all about practice take offs and landings, he said.

Those planes are below the 2,000-foot mark about 40 percent of the 15,000 hours they are airborne each year, while commercial aircraft are in the bird-strike danger zone only about 3 percent of the time.

The birds encountered are the waterfowl, raptors such as hawks, and perching birds and bats.

Arkansas and Little Rock are in the Mississippi flyway, used extensively by migratory birds during the fall months of October, November and December and the spring months of April and May.

Little Rock Air Force Base takes a three-pronged approach to discouraging birds in the area.

The three prongs are aviation aircrew awareness, habitat modification and wildlife management.

The last of those includes the most obvious—running birds off with pyrotechnics, noise cannons, screamers and bangers, and by simple harassment.

The habitat modification includes keeping grass near the runway mowed no lower than seven inches from the ground, nor higher than 14 inches.

Grass shorter than seven inches can’t successfully hide a predator, so birds are willing to rest or nest there. Grass taller than 14 inches will go to seed, attracting birds to feed.

A year ago, the base had 200 resident geese. Now it has none.

And the number of bird strikes has decreased 20 percent from a year ago, Brown said.

The Doppler radar, control tower personnel, aircrews and others report the presence of birds in the area, and the safety crew responds accordingly.

They use a bird-avoidance model that schedules most takeoffs and landings between an hour before sunrise and an hour before sunset.

Sixty-two percent of bird strikes occur at night, Stephens said.

All bird sightings and strikes are reported to the Smithsonian Institution, which compiles a nationwide data base.

Locally at the base, they are beginning to create their own bird model.