Four years after the Miracle on the Hudson landing, collisions between birds and planes are still on the rise in the U.S., and Charlotte Douglas International Airport is stepping up its efforts to reduce them.
Pilots and aircraft workers reported 125 wildlife collisions last year at Charlotte Douglas, almost all of them involving birds. Thats down slightly from the 140 reported in 2011, but significantly higher than the 29 collisions reported in 2002, according to federal records.
Experts point out thats still a tiny percentage compared with the overall number of flights, and the increase is probably a result of better reporting and more awareness of the issue. It also reflects hundreds more daily flights competing with birds for space in the skies over Charlotte.
Airport wildlife expert David Castaneda patrols the airports perimeter each day, looking for animals or signs that theyve entered the airfield. He searches out spots where coyotes or other animals have burrowed under the fence, and looks for flocks of birds near the runways. He logs every animal he sees and when necessary, he scares them away with sirens or firecrackers fired over the airfield.
Now Charlotte Douglas is preparing to embark on a yearlong census of local wildlife species and assess what kinds of threats they present to planes. The airports current wildlife management plan has been in place since 2005, and airport officials said they need to update it to account for changes such as the opening of a new runway. The number of daily flights has risen from around 500 a decade ago to more than 700.
The Federal Aviation Administration said Charlotte Douglas program is in compliance with federal regulations, and the agency found no problems with it when the airport was inspected for its annual certification in August.
Bird strikes fairly common
US Airways Capt. Ken Meadors knows how it feels in the cockpit when a plane hits a bird.
Youll hear a kind of thump, said Meadors, co-chairman of the U.S. Airline Pilots Associations safety committee. Hes had two significant bird strikes in his career, one of which took out an engine.
If you get engine ingestion, youll smell it the acrid smell of burned feathers can fill the cabin, he said.
Meadors, whos based in Charlotte, said pilots check their engine gauges and flight controls after a bird strike to see whether any serious damage has occurred and whether they need to turn back.
Bird strikes are a fairly common event in aviation. Most involve a small species hitting some part of a plane like the wings or fuselage, and dont do much damage beyond a small dent and a smear of feathers. But a small fraction cause significant damage, and occasionally a large bird ingested into a jet engine can bring an aircraft down.
Thats what happened on Jan. 15, 2009, when a Charlotte-bound US Airways plane with 155 people aboard sucked Canada geese into both engines over New York, forcing the plane to ditch in the Hudson River. All aboard survived, but the aircraft was a total loss.
Other, less high-profile incidents have also endangered flights. An FAA report from July 1, 2010, shows that a US Airways Airbus A320 aborted its takeoff from Charlotte after the left engine sucked in a bird and started to malfunction. The plane was hurtling down the runway at about 155 mph, and had trouble stopping even with max autobrake, the report said.
US Airways Capt. Bob Skinner, managing director of flight training and standards, said bird strikes have always been included as a potential threat in training, since they can cause anything from a cracked airplane nose or windscreen to an engine surge or flameout.
Awareness may be new to the public, but its not new to the pilot, Skinner said.
He said pilots communicate with their dispatchers and air traffic control to send and receive reports of bird activity, and can often see and avoid large flocks. Over a 30-year flying career, hes had birds strike his windscreen and get sucked into the engines.
This is a fact of life, he said.
First officer Jeff Skiles, who was at the controls of US Airways Flight 1549 when it ingested geese into both of the planes engines four years ago, says bird strikes arent unusual.
Youd occasionally see one flash by into the engine and (the pilot could return to the airport) on one engine. Ours was different and so rare because it took out two engines. I personally dont think that will ever be recreated again, Skiles said.
A wild job
Standing near the side of the airports westernmost runway last week, Castaneda saw a few birds hiding in the grass, bedded down under the days heavy fog. He loaded a red Bird Banger firecracker into his pistol, which looks like a snub-nosed revolver, and fired it into the air.
The dull whump echoed across the airfield, and the birds roused themselves and flew away squawking, toward the western edge of the airport.
Thats probably a couple killdeer, Castaneda said.
Castanedas title at Charlotte Douglas is wildlife coordinator, a job that takes him on patrol to every corner of the airport to search out troublesome critters. The position was created about two years ago, and Castaneda, formerly an airport operations officer, transferred to the new job.
If he finds animals in a problem spot say, a flock of geese hanging out at the end of a runway Castaneda harasses them until they move on. Hell use his Ford F-150s sirens to startle them, or load up a fireworks pistol and fire a few explosive rounds that go by evocative names: the bird banger and the bird screamer. The first makes a boom, the second, a banshee shriek.
The trick, much of the time, is similar to the physicians precept of First, do no harm.
Sometimes, you dont want to shoot, said Castaneda, if, for example, a firecracker explosion might scare birds into the path of an oncoming plane. Its a lot of just using your best judgment.
Although harassment efforts and chasing off individual flocks yields some results, the more effective way to keep wildlife away is to make the airport less attractive to them.
The biggest thing, really, is habitat removal, Castaneda said.
Airport construction projects have removed cover on much of the 3,500 acres inside the airport fence, as land has been cleared for the third and fourth parallel runways and the new rail yard. Individual stands of trees have also been removed, and the airport is scrupulous about keeping grass short enough to discourage animals from hiding there.
Most of what occupies Castanedas time are small birds, such as killdeer, starlings, pigeons and doves. Larger birds such as ducks and geese are zero-tolerance species, he said. When theyre sighted on the airfield, theyre harassed until they move on.
Other species are less common. Most of the deer seem to have moved on since increased construction reduced the wooded cover for them. The last deer collision was reported in 2010, when a US Airways 737 struck a deer while landing, but wasnt damaged.
Castaneda has seen a bald eagle on the airfield only once.
A propane cannon that shoots booms at pre-programmed intervals to frighten away birds isnt used much anymore, officials said, because the birds get used to the noise.
It sounds cruel, said aviation director Jerry Orr, but its no fun for the animals to get run over, either.
So Castaneda will keep patrolling in his truck with his bird bangers and screamers. But his boss, airport operations manager Jimmy Mynatt, knows that total elimination of birds at the airport isnt a possibility.
We cant put a canopy over the airport, Mynatt said. There are going to be birds. Staff Writer Mark Washburn contributed.
Portillo: 704-358-5041; on Twitter @ESPortillo
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