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Bird chasers help keep March skies clear of unwanted birds

  • Published
  • By Will Alexander
  • 452nd Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
Birds and aircraft don't mix. Nearly 77,000 mid-air collisions between birds and aircraft since 1985 cost the Air Force $755,721,425, according to bird strike statistics kept by Air Force Safety Center's Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard Team at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

A strike by a 12-pound bird, says the Federal Aviation Administration, produces the same impact as a half-ton weight dropped on an object from 10 feet high.

"A small bird can cost over a million dollars in damage to a single engine," said Maj. Robert Quirk, chief of training for the 452nd Operations Support Squadron.

He should know. While taking off from March in a KC-135 in 2007, he and his co-pilot heard an unmistakable thump in the engine area. No one had to tell them what had just happened.

"We knew we hit a bird," said Major Quirk, who spent six years as the 452nd Air Mobility Wing's flight safety officer. "But we continued to take off because we were at a speed where it was safer to continue."

That decision was tougher than it sounds.

Perhaps in the frontal lobe of every pilot's brain in moments like this are the tragic stories of past bird strikes that ended with fatalities. Like the time four common starlings were sucked into the four engines of Eastern Air Lines Flight 375 during take-off in Boston harbor in 1960, causing it to crash and kill 62 people. Or when an Air Force airborne warning and control system plane struck three dozen geese during takeoff at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, in 1995. The AWACS E-3 crashed in a forest about a mile beyond the runway and killed all 24 people onboard.

Major Quirk and his co-pilot had no clue what damage they suffered as they ascended to a holding altitude of 5,000 feet.

"We ran some checks and we tried to find where the damage was," he said. "So we accomplished our checklists and we returned safely back to March."

After landing, the y found that the tanker's No. 3 engine suffered significant damage from a red-tailed hawk. The cost exceeded $700,000.

"Fortunately for us, we have four engines and fortunately that (damaged) engine performed very well, " he said. "So, it's real important that we do everything we can to prevent bird strike hazards on the airfield. A big part of that is having a good wildlife control contract with trained falconers."

That's where Stuart Rossell comes in. He's a falconer with a company called Falcon Environmental Services out of Plattsburgh, N.Y. The company employs 20 of the roughly three dozen falconers operating at airfields and land fields throughout the United States. Mr. Rossell, Dave Pfefer and Rebecca Rosen provide wildlife control services here.

Their highly disciplined falcons have been scaring birds away from March's airfield since December 2006. And since then, Mr. Rossell has developed a reputation among some of March's regular "visitors." Ravens and red-tailed hawks have been known to scatter at the mere sight of his truck.

"The falcons are a natural predator and that's something the birds can never get used to," said Mr. Rossell, who developed his father's love of birds while in elementary school. "They swoop to attack. That's the kind of hunting style they use in the wild and that's what terrifies other birds so much. Falcons typically hunt their prey while in flight in open areas; so that suits an airport very well."

Mr. Rossell and his core team of 6 to 13 falcons start their day at about 7 a.m., roaming the airfield looking for birds. Frequent flyers around March's airfield are ravens, red-tailed hawks, mourning doves, house finches and horned larks - especially horned larks.

"Horned larks are the biggest problem," he said.. "They like open areas and we get them in flocks. March is a perfect habitat for them."

Major Quirk doesn't disagree that horned larks are a huge nuisance here, but when it comes to aircraft damage, the larger birds - red-tailed hawks and golden eagles - are the biggest hazards at March.

If Mr. Rossell spots a congregation of birds during his morning drive-arounds, he'll release a falcon and let him fly.

"Sometimes they chase the birds a bit and sometimes they fly around," he said, "but it's just the sight of them flying that drives the other birds away. We try to get the airfield clear of all the birds we can find before the first flight in the morning, which is around 9 a.m. Then it's a matter of regular patrols throughout the day to make sure nothing's creeping back out there."

Mr. Rossell trains his falcons using food and familiarization. He puts a dummy bird, called a lure, at the end of a line with a piece of food attached to it. He then swings that line above his head, and the falcons swoop down on the lure. When they do, they're rewarded with food. He said the line starts out at about 2 yards at first and is gradually extended as the falcons develop in their training. The whole process takes from four to six weeks.

Mr. Rossell normally has a core team of six to eight falcons that work the March airfields, but he's increased that to about 13 in anticipation of an increase in birds in the fall.

"September to October is the worst time, purely because you're at the end of the breeding season," he said. "You've got more birds on the planet than at any other time of the year; and a lot of them are moving from north to south."

"The falcon program is very effective," said Brad Potter, airfield operations manager. "Compared with what I was having to deal with before the falconer came, the problem is almost non-existent." Before March contracted the current falconer, Mr. Potter said it was his job to scare birds off.

"I did it using sirens and I had a shotgun with bird scare," he said. "Bird scare is a cartridge that shoots in the air and it's almost like a firework - shoot it in the air and it pops."

But as great as the falcons have been, Mr. Potter said no single method works alone in implementing an effective Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program. He said it's critical to eliminate the reasons birds are attracted to the airfields in the first place.

"We cut the grass to 7 to 14 inches," he said. "Ponding: We try to keep the bird baths off the runway. Food sources (such as ground squirrels): We try to keep those down. So there's a bunch of different measures we use to protect the airfield. We can never become complacent."

To make sure falcons continue to help March minimize the risk to aircraft from bird strikes, Mr. Rossell said he plans to start breeding them here next spring.

"The new falconers have been around for about two years now and in the past year or so we have seen a significant decrease in the number of bird strikes," said Major Quirk. "Even though it may seem costly to have a (wildlife control services) contract, in a given year, if they prevent one damaged engine, it's obviously well worth our money."  (Air Force Reserve Command News Service)