KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) - On a nice, sunny day in the 1960s, air taxi pilot Dick Hamlin picked up two women and their babies to take them to a logging camp on Kasaan Bay. As the air taxi approached Grindall Island, Hamlin noticed an eagle in the air, watching the plane.
Suddenly, “he gets into an updraft, and he’s got his wings spread and he comes up and he turns, coming at me with his claws,” Hamlin recalled. Hamlin yelled a warning to his passengers and maneuvered to avoid a collision, leaving the women hanging on to their children.
“He didn’t realize that he was about to die,” Hamlin said of the eagle, “and I didn’t want the rest of us to end up in the same situation.”
While that eagle’s behavior was unusual, the Ketchikan Daily News reported (https://bit.ly/1QYFo1J), birds and airplanes frequently collide by accident over Alaska, the result of an uneasy timeshare arrangement between species that is costing airlines millions of dollars in the state.
Federal Aviation Administration records of bird “strikes” are incomplete, due to lax reporting rules and the fact that the FAA rarely records military-related events. But since 1990, at least 41 bird strikes have caused serious damage to aircraft in Alaska.
Those types of collisions - statistical rarities among the hundreds of “harmless” bird strikes reported in Alaska - come with a big price tag: “Repair estimation of $1 million was reported as conservative,” a report to the FAA noted with clinical detachment after a Polar Air Cargo plane’s 747 jet engine ingested a bald eagle last year in Anchorage.
But the costs have the potential to be much higher. Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that April’s fatal plane crash north of Anchorage happened after a small plane hit a juvenile bald eagle. The crash killed four people, including pilot George Kobelnyk, a former NTSB employee who helped investigate aircraft accidents. And in 1995, a gigantic Boeing E-3 Sentry hit a flock of geese while taking off at Alaska’s Elmendorf Air Force base and crashed, killing all 24 servicemen aboard. Counting the April accident, 29 civilians have died in bird-related plane crashes across the country since 1990.
In Ketchikan and Prince of Wales, airports engage in a number of practices to keep passengers and multimillion dollar airplanes safe along an arterial road for migrating birds that occasionally swells into a highway.
A few weeks ago, the military called Ketchikan International Airport Manager Mike Carney to tell him they were coming through the area with a C-17 and AWACS planes (another term for the Boeing E-3 Sentry).
“The first thing they ask,” Carney said, “is, ‘what’s the bird activity?’”
The bird situation in Ketchikan is essentially as follows: When it comes to airplanes, the main animals to worry about are eagles, geese and gulls. Bald eagles and gulls are repeat offenders that have been hit by arriving or departing planes, though recently the airport has mostly had trouble with smaller, comparatively less dangerous shorebirds.
The size of a bird is a major factor in how much of a threat it is to airplanes but personality also plays a role. For example, ravens thrive in the dense, coniferous rainforest and glacier-gouged waterways of Southeast Alaska, but they are rarely hit by planes.
“Ravens are smart,” explained Ketchikan airport wildlife biologist Steve Scheldt. “They know enough to get out of the way.”
Bald eagles are literally a different breed: Scheldt said one Alaska Airlines pilot told him of an eagle near Yakutat that would fly out toward a jet, roll on its back, flare its talons and challenge the plane as it would another eagle.
“You can’t maneuver those big planes that fast,” Scheldt said. “Sometimes you whack one of them.”
It’s the kind of behavior one would expect from animals that didn’t have much to worry about before humans came along.
And just like with humans, young eagles are involved in more traffic accidents. Paul Khera, an airport safety and security officer for the State of Alaska, described juvenile bald eagles as “kind of wild behind the wheel, like a high school driver.”
According to the FAA, wildlife strikes - of which birds make up about 97 percent - cause up to $957 million in economic losses every year. (Almost 700 U.S. airports reported at least one wildlife strike in 2014; more than 13,000 strikes were reported in all.)
In context, Ketchikan’s airport has not had huge bird problems. There have been 25 recorded bird strikes since 1991. There hasn’t been a bald eagle strike since 2006, and the last time a bird seriously damaged a plane was in 1999, when an eagle dented the wing of a Taquan Air Cessna. The most damage a bird has caused since then was in 2004, when an unknown bird struck the top of an Alaska Airlines 737, causing a ceiling panel to drop down behind the pilots. There have been no recorded geese strikes: Migrating geese, feared for their comparative heft and tendency to travel in massive flocks, usually pass over the grass-poor coniferous forest and rocky beaches around Ketchikan without stopping, in search of better food options.
“Our airport is in a good position,” Carney said.
This despite sitting on the Pacific Flyway - a massive coastal route for migrating birds in the spring and fall that stretches from the bottom tip of South America all the way up to Alaska. The name can be a little misleading; there is no set route for birds but rather multiple paths that branch out, then twine back together, like capillaries feeding a main artery, with different final destinations for different species. Birds can alter their routes every year, but they do have tendencies.
Steve Heinl, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the Bonaparte’s gull and surf scoter love to fly up through the Tongass Narrows by the thousands, but many other species pick different paths. Often times, migrating birds will pass over Ketchikan without stopping - an ideal situation if you’re running an airport.
“You can see 10,000 shorebirds fly by in a day and (only) see a couple hundred on the ground,” Heinl said.
On Prince of Wales, Klawock Airport has had more trouble with bird strikes, especially with geese and bald eagles. Since 2010 the airport has had 21 strikes or near misses, where the pilot had to steer out of the way, delay takeoffs or abort landings. Seven of those incidents involved bald eagles, 10 involved geese.
Klawock is a smaller airport. While Ketchikan saw some 220,000 passenger arrivals and departures last year and is operated by the borough, Klawock does not receive jets and is one of more than 200 airports around the state operated by the Alaska Department of Transportation. Airport manager Tim Lacour, an employee of the DOT, said his department is responsible for maintaining all of the roads on Prince of Wales - and they’re in the same boat everyone else is when it comes to the budget. Alaska DOT has partnered with Island Air Express in Klawock, training airline employees how to best frighten birds away.
“We don’t have the personnel,” Lacour said. “That’s why Island Air has been trying to do that for themselves.”
Carney estimated the Ketchikan airport spends $15,000-$20,000 a year on wildlife issues, accounting for man hours and training time.
Airports that have had a strike are required to create a wildlife hazard assessment and plan, but the plan always boils down to a two-pronged attack of eliminating bird-friendly habitat and driving a vehicle out onto the runway to harass the creatures in a process called “hazing.”
Pyrotechnics are the unquestioned rock stars of bird strike prevention: Loud, flashy, attention-grabbing. They are essentially non-lethal, glorified fireworks that airport employees fire out of pistols to scare birds off runways.
The arsenal wields lingo worthy of the punk rock scene: There’s bangers, which go out 60-80 yards and then explode. There’s screamers, which spiral out, leaving a smoky tail while screeching “like a banshee,” according to Scheldt. There’s shell crackers, which are fired from a 12-gauge shotgun and have longer reach.
Scheldt uses a pistol that fires screamers and bangers simultaneously.
“That’s really ideal,” he said, “because the screamer goes out there and gets them all worked up and that banger explodes in the sky like a firecracker. It’s very efficient. Gets them moving quick.”
In Ketchikan, airport maintenance staff is responsible for conducting most of the runway hazing, though they won’t always send a truck out to sweep the runway before every single flight lands.
The Ketchikan airport used to fire off noisy propane cannons to irritate birds “every 30 seconds,” Carney said. “The people that live across from the airport really aren’t a big fan of that. So if it’s not needed, we don’t do it.”
Carney said the airport looked at getting a dog to chase off birds, or hiring goats to keep the vegetation down, but ultimately decided they weren’t cost-effective options. Klawock, meanwhile, has found recent success with a different kind of animal - one made entirely of plastic. Lacour said a life-size model of a coyote, new this year, has been working so far.
Khera said Island Air Express employees don’t have the permits to use pyrotechnics, and stick to driving out on the runway and using car horns. They can request DOT personnel if there is a persistent problem.
If all that seems like a lot of work, 96 percent of all bird strikes take place during either takeoff or landing, so keeping a clean runway is key.
Occasionally, hazing won’t work and airports are forced to kill a problem bird. Carney said the airport has only killed geese, but that Ketchikan has a permit to kill bald eagles if it has to.
“Lots of times the geese just fly away when we drive up, other times geese are stubborn and we’ve got to convince them with a real gun,” Carney said.
While less flashy, habitat modification is equally key.
Ketchikan has a vegetative spray program along the runway. It mows down brush like salmonberries that attract smaller birds and chops down alders. Hemlock and shore pine, perch trees for birds of prey, are taken down inside the airport fence. Airport staff will chop down trees outside the fence if the FAA considers them a navigation danger. Klawock follows a similar program of eliminating vegetation.
“Ideally, that whole place should be gravel,” Scheldt said of the Ketchikan airport.
But even that isn’t entirely ideal. Ketchikan has had problems with killdeer - “cute little shorebirds,” Scheldt said - nesting in the gravel around the airport. The airport now drags a piece of fence behind a pickup to destroy their nesting hollows.
“You’re looking at all that species requires to feel safe: He needs food, he needs water and he needs nesting habitat, and if we can eliminate some of those items he’s going to go somewhere else,” Scheldt said.
One of the unique challenges of Southeast Alaska is that virtually all airports are sitting right on the water. It’s an aspect of the environment that’s almost totally uncontrollable. Thousands of rich salmon streams - prime bird attractants for food - feed into waterways across the area.
“We can’t train the ocean, but we can keep the vegetation down,” Khera said.
If humans are essentially waging a constant battle to modify nature, they’re also sometimes patching up problems of their own creation. Before Ketchikan’s landfill began shipping food waste south in the mid-90s, the dump attracted large amounts of gulls. Fish processors used to expel large amounts of fish waste into the Tongass Narrows - more or less directly across from the airport. They now create byproducts like fish oil, reducing their waste.
And when the Ketchikan airport expanded its runway south, Scheldt said the fill created a grassy hill that migrating geese use as a rest-over area. The expansion also opened up a spring that discharges parallel to the runway, leading to salmon spawning right next to Alaska Airlines jets (a weir was put in to stop that). Scheldt said a third consequence of the runway was the expansion of Government Creek, which created a large salmon-spawning environment.
“Thousands of gulls feed on salmon and eggs right at the end of the runway,” Scheldt said. “It’s impossible to get rid of them.”
In this case, the airport learned that it’s best to leave the gulls alone rather than haze them and create massive, hazardous flocks of birds taking to the air. The gulls tend to stay hunkered down by the creek as planes pass overhead. The airport added a no-hunting zone to prevent gunfire from creating dangerous flocks of birds.
Birds that are not natural to Ketchikan have hopscotched up to it on patches of human-generated lawns, lots, playgrounds and parks. Heinl and partner Andrew Piston guessed in a research paper that all of the bird species they spotted less than once a year - almost 40 percent of 260 species - likely relied on human activity to get there.
Many of these are smaller birds, but Scheldt said the area has about 60 Canada geese that never leave, feeding at the cemetery, landfill and school fields.
Those killdeer that the airport works so hard to harass likely wouldn’t be there in the first place if it weren’t for humans. Heinl said the birds here only nest where people have disturbed the habitat and created gravelly areas, places like the airport and Wal-Mart.
“What we’ve done is we’ve created habitat so that population(s) can expand,” Scheldt said. “If we didn’t have these areas, they’d boogie out of here.”
When a plane strikes a bird, a couple things happen.
Bird strike reporting is not mandatory (a study for the FAA published in 2015 estimated that about half of wildlife strikes are reported), but Carney said the Ketchikan airport reports all its strikes and so do the airlines there.
There’s been a recent change in attitude in the airline industry following the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when a flock of migrating geese blew out both engines on a US Airways flight, forcing the plane to land, safely, in the Hudson River. That 2009 event sparked a period of federal introspection about how to make air travel safer and a wider acceptance among businesses that bird strike data is useful.
FAA records from before then reveal a more confrontational era when airlines sometimes attempted to cover up or downplay bird strikes. At times, reports before 2009 range in tone from huffy - “airline rep has flatly refused to answer any questions posed by airport’s wildlife coordinator and airfield mx supv about this strike or any others” (Juneau, 2004) - to conspiratorial: “Internet rept from angry pax stated that the a/c was supposed to go to Nome but had to land at Anchorage instead. Said that ramp supv threatened him with eviction off the a/c and jail if he said anything. . Would not let pax take photos of the eng” (Kotzebue, 1999). On the other end of the spectrum, reports occasionally swing into the morbidly first-person: “We smelled burned bird” (Fairbanks, 1992).
Of foremost concern is identifying the type of bird that the plane hit.
That can be tricky. The force with which a plane hits a bird often leaves just a smear of goo and a few feathers, what’s known in the industry as “snarge.”
Here, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., rides to the rescue by offering a free-of-charge service that’s funded by the FAA.
In cases where there is very little corpse left, the Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Lab identifies the remains using microscopic feather analysis and sometimes DNA testing.
It’s sort of like “CSI” for birds, but in this case the identity of the murderer is always known and the victim is in question.
Regardless of whether a bird has been identified locally, the Smithsonian wants airports to send in samples such as feathers, beaks and feet. Khera said Klawock collects feathers to send to D.C., and Scheldt will send samples to the Smithsonian even if he can identify the bird. In its 2014 fiscal year, the Smithsonian lab identified more than 9,000 bird strike samples from around the country.
The lab says that identifying exact species helps airports create targeted hazard management plans and even helps manufacturers design safer aircraft.
Bird strikes “can be an issue of life and death,” the DOT’s Lacour said. “It’s a serious problem.”
New technologies are in the works that might partially solve that problem - or they might not.
Avian radar is a relatively new technology that’s been deployed at a handful of airports, including Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Bird migration forecasting is another potential tool that hasn’t seen wide use. Airbus recently patented a technology to scare birds away by blasting noises from their jets mid-flight or on the ground at an airport.
The new two-engine jets that have taken over civilian transportation are demonstrably quieter and more reliable than the multi-engine beasts they replaced, but there is some evidence that the older, noisier planes were better at scaring birds away and less at risk to the kind of total engine failure that led to the Hudson River incident.
One change that could affect generations of air travelers is the continuing warming of the planet and its influence on bird migration.
Birds likely will start their spring migrations earlier, and their routes and destinations could change with the environment. Airport managers might find themselves dealing with unexpected species they’ve never seen and haven’t prepared for.
This year’s winter set warmth records up and down much of the West Coast, and Heinl said that it has led to “record early” bird arrivals in Alaska.
“Just when you think you’ve figured something out, patterns change,” Heinl said.
Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, https://www.ketchikandailynews.com
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