- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

When birds and airplane engines meet, the result can be a mess of flying feathers and avian parts.

In some cases, the mess includes airplane debris and human corpses.

Now the Smithsonian Institution wants to use DNA tests to sort out the pieces of the birds.

The Smithsonian is working with the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration to create the nation's first database of bird DNA for aviation.

The database will be used to identify the types of birds most likely to be hit by airplanes. The FAA application for a $500,000 grant is pending before the federal government. A decision is expected in October.

The FAA's goal is to figure out a way to avoid the bird strikes or to engineer airplanes that can withstand multiple hits.

"If you don't know what birds you're hitting, you don't know how to control the problems," said Carla Dove, research scientist for the Smithsonian's Feather Identification Laboratory.

One flight at Washington Dulles International Airport was forced to return to the airport after it collided with two wild turkeys April 9. One turkey hit the pilot's windshield and the other struck the fuselage, causing minor damage to the Atlantic Coast Airlines passenger jet.

"Clearly, for the aviation system, they're a very big safety problem," said Tom Sullivan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Dulles Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The issue is becoming more important as airlines and the military install quieter but more powerful engines. Birds are less likely to hear the airplanes coming, and the damage could be more severe.

Since 1985, the U.S. Air Force calculates its losses from bird strikes at an average of more than $33 million per year.

"We have lost every size of aircraft in our fleet, from fighters to transport category," said Eugene LeBoeuf, head of the Air Force's Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) team. "We've lost a total of 32 aircraft and 35 lives since 1973."

The worst accident involved an E-3 AWACS surveillance plane that hit a flock of Canada geese while taking off from Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, Alaska, in 1995. The airplane, essentially a modified Boeing 707 passenger jet, crashed, killing all 24 crewmen.

Fighter jets are more commonly the victims, especially during training exercises. The fighters take off and land frequently, which involves flying through low altitudes.

Birds also have smashed through the cockpit canopies of jets flying at high speeds.

When that happens, Mr. LeBoeuf said, "You're going to leave the aircraft, one way or another."

Although numerous small, private aircraft have been downed by bird strikes, the only major incident with a civil flight in recent decades involved an Overseas National Airways DC-10 that hit seagulls while taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1975. As the engines sputtered, the pilot jammed the plane into emergency braking, which blew out the tires, making the plane skid along the New York runway and catch fire.

Everyone on board survived.

The FAA has standards for engines to withstand birds. For example, an engine capable of generating 100,000 pounds of thrust must be able to withstand strikes by 8-pound birds.

An average seagull weighs 4 pounds. Canada geese can weigh as much as 12 pounds.

During tests, FAA inspectors sometimes launch dead chickens at 300 mph into airplane engines bolted to platforms on the ground.

The Air Force already tracks bird-migration patterns by visual inspection and radar. They use the Internet to alert pilots to bird hazards.

The Smithsonian Institution has helped track the birds under a contract with the Air Force and the FAA since 1999. The planned DNA tests and database are an effort to refine the tracking to a more sophisticated level.

"We have one of the largest collections of birds in the world, so we have the resources here to identify those unknown fragments," Miss Dove said.

Only 5 percent of the birds in civil aviation bird strikes and 45 percent in military bird strikes are ever identified, she said.

Even then, identification can be difficult when the only parts left are blood, feathers and small pieces of flesh. Airline or military personnel are supposed to scrape the remnants off airplanes and mail them to the Feather Identification Laboratory in plastic bags.

But what the eye overlooks, scientific tests can reveal embedded in the DNA the basic building block of all living matter.

"If we have DNA, we can run blood samples and tissue samples and match it up to a known database of sequences," Miss Dove said.

Most of the federal grant the FAA seeks would be used to test and record the DNA sequences for the computer database, which would take years.

The tests will be run only when the remnants of birds are unidentifiable by visual inspection.

After the birds are identified, their location and migratory patterns will be plotted on computerized maps and adjusted as the birds change locations.

"That can differ from airport to airport," Miss Dove said.

Some birds, for example, feed on specific kinds of insects common to only a few airports. Groundskeepers are supposed to apply pesticides at those airports.

Canada geese and seagulls create some of the greatest threats. The population of Canada geese has exploded in the past 15 years since hunting restrictions were imposed.

In July, they are commonly found around Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but in January, they are in Mexico.

Airports in the Washington area have problems with both Canada geese and seagulls, among other species. Reagan Airport keeps propane cannons alongside runways that can be activated at 45-second intervals to frighten the birds away with loud explosions. Other airports use falcons and dogs to chase them away.

"They have a whole toolbox of resources," Miss Dove said. "But the first thing they have to know is what kinds of birds are causing the problem."

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