Monday, July 20, 2015

TOP STORY >> For the birds

By Tammy L. Reed
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Little Rock Air Force Base pilots invest a lot of time in flight training assessing and mitigating risks they will face delivering beans and bullets to warfighters downrange. 

One of the biggest risks aircrews face, no matter where they are flying, are the risks of bird strikes. Bird strikes are just that: A bird, or birds, striking a plane in flight causing damage to the engines, windshields and other parts of the plane; they are a major risk and can be costly in aircraft damage and human lives. 

It’s a serious safety issue for Air Force pilots in general and Little Rock AFB in particular. The base’s very location puts it right on the convergence of the Central Flyway and the Mississippi Flyway; two major corridors birds use to migrate twice a year in the spring and fall.

Limiting exposure to bird strikes is a full-time job for base safety and airfield personnel.

“We have a lot of birds that come right over central Arkansas, right when and where we’re flying all the time, and that’s why we’ve led the Air Force in bird strikes,” said Kimm Hunt, USDA wildlife biologist.   

It’s also one of the reasons why Hunt works with Team Little Rock in the 19th Air Wing Safety office.  He runs the Bird/wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard, or BASH program, and his work helps reduce the number of bird strikes affecting Little Rock’s pilots. 

“When I first got here (eight years ago), the bird strike rate was about 17 bird strikes per thousand hours of flying, now we’re down to less than 10,” Hunt said. “We’ll never get rid of bird strikes … but we can try to reduce their number as much as possible, and keep it at a manageable level.  Our goal is to keep it under 10.”

One of the tools the base uses to reach that goal is one Hunt developed himself, called the Bird Strike Threat calculator, or BST.  

Mission planners use the calculator to answer five questions: date, time, altitude they are flying, weather pattern and route they are flying.  All questions directly related to a pilot’s chance of running into birds. Their answers give them the bird strike threat level for that plan. 

“The threat levels are from one to five, with one being low. What this allows them to do is if they come up with a four or five, they can change one or more of those five parameters to reduce that number down to a one or two,” Hunt said. “They can look ahead and determine how much of a threat they’re going to have on that mission and mitigate from there.”

They use the BST in addition to the Avian Hazard Advisory System and Bird Avoidance Model tools used Air Force wide, further reducing the chance of bird strikes.

Base leadership made that addition here, as it has been proven to be effective for the local BASH program. 

BASH isn’t just for the birds, as deer and other animals often run across airfields to collide with the planes moving there, causing as much damage as avian collisions.  

Hunt has a number of tools on the ground he uses to make the airfield safer both for the pilots and their planes and those animals. 

One is the 5 miles of electric fence that surrounds it.  Hunt is in charge of maintaining the fence and keeping animals on the other side of it.  There’s a lot of animal psychology used in training the deer to maintain a healthy fear of that fence.

He explained that deer’s hair is hollow, and they are fairly well insulated, so they don’t feel the non-lethal shock from the fence unless they touch it with their nose or mouth.  They get to where they will go in and out of the fence, or run right through it.  He has to retrain them to stay away.  

“Maybe four times a year, I’ll go along the hot wire about every few one hundred yards, and put some peanut butter on there…They can’t resist licking the peanut butter. Obviously they get shocked, and it reteaches them to not go through the fence.”

He has to watch his results though, as he wants them scared of the fence, and not of peanut butter.

Other methods he uses to keep animals away involve shooting pyrotechnics into the air, firing air cannons and just running at them or harassing them.  

Another is as simple as the height of the grass bordering the airfield itself.  He explained years of experience and research has shown that keeping grass around the airfield mowed between 7 inches and 14 inches is the ideal vegetation height to reduce large numbers of wildlife.  

Boiled down you get this: Above 7 inches, flocking birds won’t use the area because they can’t see each other and predators. If grass gets higher than 14 inches it goes to seed, providing a food source to the field and a place to hide for a number of creatures who are then food sources to raptors and coyotes. 

“If we are going to err, I tell the airfield personnel and the mowers to err on the high side, as there are way too many bird species that like the low grass,” Hunt said. 

Airfield Manager Kerry Miller said he and his crew work hand-in-hand with Mr. Hunt on BASH. 

“We discuss the grass heights and the management proposals as well as the BASH plan for how we handle the birds on the airfield, so it’s a joint environment.”

When it comes to harassment and dispersal of wildlife from the airfield, Hunt gets help from Miller’s front counter personnel.

“I train them to use techniques such as the pyrotechnics and the air cannons. They take care of it when I’m not around.” 

Unfortunately the dispersal techniques don’t always scare the birds and other animals away, and the wildlife biologist has to resort to more lethal methods. 

“On occasion depredation is a necessary evil though, because after a while they get used to the dispersal techniques. They run off for a while, then they come back.”

He said you have to retrain the animals to be afraid of the noise, so they don’t come back to your airfield. “They need to see that some of them don’t make it, and that there are consequences to staying.

“Depredation is always the last resort, the last thing we want to do,” he said, “But it is a necessary step.”   

Pointing out a deer stand right outside the fence, he added that LRAFB allows and encourages hunting to help manage the animal population. He uses hunting as another tool to help with BASH, as hunters help keep animal numbers down and they use the animal as well.

If Hunt does have to put an animal down such as a deer or goose, he will donate the meat to the “Hunters feeding the Hungry Program” to utilize them, too. 

One of the more personal tools Hunt uses in his work to keep pilots and aircraft safe, is talking directly to the pilots in aircrew awareness. He teaches pilots what to look for and what to avoid when they are flying. 

“For example, if they see a bird ahead of them the pilot needs to pull up because the bird will normally dive. It’s little techniques like that,” he said.

The techniques Hunt imparts and all the tools he uses for the BASH program has made a difference to LRAFB. Miller considers all of this integral to keeping the airfield safe. 

“We don’t have that many strikes actually on the airfield, and he’s a very big reason that we don’t.” 

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