Making Airspace for Birds and Planes

Making Airspace for Birds and Planes

When birds and aircraft collide, it can be disastrous. Fortunately, a combination of common sense, cutting-edge technology, and a bit of bird knowledge is making the skies safer for all.  

By Bruce Barcott/Artwork by Aaron Koblin
Published: May-June 2009

And it's getting worse. The airline industry doesn't publicize it--for obvious reasons--but more birds are hitting more airplanes every year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FAA, which monitor wildlife hazards to aviation, there were 1,759 reported birdstrikes to civil aircraft in 1990. In 2007 there were 7,666--a fourfold increase. Some of that can be attributed to better reporting by pilots and mechanics, although the FAA estimates that only 20 percent of all strikes are reported. Another reason for the increase might be the swelling number of flights; commercial air traffic has increased by 1.8 percent a year since 1980, and there were more than 28 million flights in 2007. The FAA estimates that number will continue growing by 2 percent a year and will reach 36 million flights by 2020. Another key indicator is a statistic known as strikes per 10,000 movements of aircraft. It's like the industry's birdstrike batting average. In 1990 it was 0.53, or one strike for every 20,000 flights. By 2007 it had tripled, to 1.75.

Despite the rising incidence and the example of US Airways 1549, the issue remains a low priority for commercial airlines and the FAA. The Air Force has long made birdstrike reporting mandatory. For civil aircraft under FAA jurisdiction, though, reporting remains voluntary. "We're always looking at ways to improve our wildlife mitigation efforts," says FAA spokesperson Hank Price. But in the weeks following the US Airways crash, the agency took no action to review its existing avoidance procedures. "The shame of it is, this is something we can have some control over," says Eschenfelder.

While the continued decline of songbirds and at-risk species is well known, populations of gulls and turkey vultures--large birds capable of inflicting a lot of damage to an airplane--have risen steadily, and grassy fields and retention ponds surrounding airports are attractive feeding and resting grounds for Canada geese. "There are a lot more big birds than there were 40 years ago, and they're hitting aircraft with greater frequency," Steve Predmore, chief safety officer of JetBlue Airways, told a gathering of industry experts in 2006. "Birdstrikes are a real threat," he said, with no silver bullet solution.

There may be no silver bullet, but the nation's pilots and air travelers do have a Lone Ranger. DeFusco realized his calling in the early 1980s when, as an Air Force Academy lieutenant, he hit a bird on his second solo flight. As flames shot out his engine, DeFusco landed the plane and walked away. Because of the high speed, pilots usually see just a flash before impact, if they see anything at all. But DeFusco was a lifelong birder. "It was a Mississippi kite," he recalls.

DeFusco worked on the Air Force's BASH (Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard) team in the late 1980s and 1990s, developing the first radar-based system for bird avoidance before leaving to become an independent consultant. Today he works out of a home office in Colorado Springs, but he's in such demand that he travels three days a week. "Anybody who has this problem eventually finds me," DeFusco says. "And right now a lot of people are finding me."

Solving human-bird conflicts in a high-risk environment like airports involves a blend of cutting-edge surveillance and traditional birding knowledge. Major airports have employed wildlife managers since the 1970s, and yet the number of birdstrikes continues to rise. Now, DeFusco believes, the aviation industry needs to stop thinking of birds as nuisances and start thinking of them as a natural phenomenon--like the weather. "We're integrating bird migration patterns and historical data into models that will let us predict when and where birds will be concentrated," he says. "Where we are with birds today is something like where we were with weather forecasting 50 years ago."


At work DeFusco combines a detective's gumshoe sleuthing with a lobbyist's persuasive diplomacy. The Tulsa job was part of a long-term contract with the Air National Guard. After the 1995 crash at Elmendorf, military officials demanded new birdstrike avoidance plans at each of the nation's 88 Air National Guard bases. DeFusco has been creating those plans since 2001--after Tulsa he'd have only four more to go.

Like a private eye looking for clues, DeFusco walked the grounds, climbed into the air traffic control tower, chatted up the maintenance crew, and poked around corners in the F-16 hangar. He sought out any natural or built feature that would attract a bird or let deer or coyotes slip through the perimeter fence. (Airplanes hit about 150 mammals, mostly deer, on American runways every year.)

"I often start with the grass," DeFusco told Lt. Col. Jimmy Nichols as they stood at the edge of the Tulsa Airport perimeter road. "Your grass here is in nice shape, not a lot of weeds, which is good. Except for Canada geese, grass is indigestible to most wildlife. The thing is, right now it's cut too low. You want it seven to fourteen inches high. If grass grows above a bird's eye height, you obscure their interflock communication system and keep them from seeing predators. It makes 'em real nervous."

Nichols made a note of it. As the 138th Fighter Wing's safety officer, he's responsible for keeping birds out of his pilots' airspace. And as a fighter pilot with nearly 20 years' experience, he wants nothing to do with birdstrikes. "I once hit a turkey vulture on a low-level flight outside Phoenix," he said. "The bird guts and feathers splattered inside the cockpit. The smell--oh, man. That's nothing I want to experience again."

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