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

In Tulsa, Russ DeFusco made the toughest sales call of the day: the air traffic control tower. This was the job's diplomatic end. Everybody else at the airport and Air National Guard base could be gung-ho about birdstrike prevention, but if the people in the control tower weren't on board, all of DeFusco's work might be for naught. He wanted the air traffic controllers to start integrating real-time bird hazard information (that is, pilots and airfield managers spotting flocks of birds near the runway) into their communications with pilots. "If the [bird hazard] level is severe, they should let pilots in the area know that," he said in the elevator up to the control tower. "But they've got strict union rules, and sometimes that stops the whole thing cold."

One supervisor and two controllers worked the tower. It was a slow day, and they could afford to listen to DeFusco's pitch. Below the tower two dozen mallards, buffleheads, and gadwalls paddled around a stormwater retention pond. "We want to make it easy for you," he told the controllers. They listened politely, but their faces read skeptical. On the way out, the tower supervisor gave DeFusco a few encouraging words. "I think we can do it," he said. "We've just got to make sure it's not against any of our rules."

The next morning DeFusco wrapped up his work with a briefing for the 138th Fighter Wing commander, Col. Michael Hepner. DeFusco had been up late the previous night preparing a PowerPoint presentation. He pitched the utility of the AHAS avian radar system, and mentioned the air traffic controllers' crucial role with diplomacy and tact. Hepner nodded in a way that conveyed his understanding of both the importance of the technology and the difficulty of changing air traffic control protocols.

At the end of the day, DeFusco felt he had made some converts to the cause. The air traffic controllers might not fully support it yet, but DeFusco was confident that the 138th Fighter Wing's safety officer, Lt. Col. Jimmy Nichols, would continue to press the issue long after DeFusco's report was filed away. "There's nothing like experience to bring the importance of this issue home," DeFusco says. "When you hit a turkey vulture going 500 knots, like Colonel Nichols did, you'll go out of your way to avoid a repeat performance."

This article originally ran in the September-October 2008 issue as, "Clearing the Air." 

Ground Control
No single technique will always keep birds out of flight paths, so airports use a variety of strategies. The cheapest option? "The human being out there hooting and hollering," says John Ostrom, chair of Bird Strike Committee USA. "If you want to move birds, 'shoo, shoo, shoo' still works." Here are other popular tools:

Gas cannons Essentially propane ignited to make a loud noise, gas cannons can be set to timers or remotely controlled. At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, they're often used with distress-cry generators, which broadcast digitally recorded bird sounds. 

Radar Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has been the primary test site for bird radar since 2006, and it recently installed a third radar system. Other airports, including Chicago's O'Hare and Dallas Fort-Worth in Texas, plan to install bird radar this year.

Pyrotechnics Each day officials at airports nationwide set off everything from bangers and screamers to grenade-launched pyrotechnics to disperse flocks around runways. They're cheap, easy to use, and effective--even against imperturbable Canada geese.

Falcons and dogs Not all solutions are mechanical. New York's John F. Kennedy International has a resident falconer; his handful of predators keeps smaller birds at bay. Southwest Florida International in Fort Myers is one airport that uses border collies to chase unwanted guests off the tarmac.

Paintball Personnel often use paintball guns, which are less pricey than animal programs. For this nonlethal tactic, officials at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport aim into and just outside of flocks that don't budge when pyrotechnics are set off.--Katherine Tweed

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