'WAR BIRDS' - Safety experts spearhead efforts to minimize bird strikes

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jason Lake
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing (AFNS)
Americans witnessed firsthand the severity of bird strikes when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson River in New York City after hitting a flock of birds in January.

Lt. Col. Charles Wallace and his team of seven safety experts with the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Safety Office at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, do their part to ensure a similar disaster doesn't happen at Bagram Airfield through an aggressive Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program.

"During the first quarter of this fiscal year, Bagram bird strikes accounted for one-third of all strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan," Wallace explained. "We've had twice as many bird strikes as the next airfield in the (area of operation)."

Tech. Sgt. Shane Sweeney, the wing's weapons safety manager, said Bagram Airfield also was approaching the peak season for bird strikes.

"Based on historical data, the highest threat occurs during migratory seasons, which are early April through June and late August through October," he explained.

Tech. Sgt. Jason Stiyer, the wing's flight safety noncommissioned officer, said the first quarter of 2009 was shaping up to be the worst year yet for bird strikes as totals were double the five-year average for the same time period.

"In the last week of February, we had six bird strikes in nine days," Stiyer said, indicating that spring migration had started.

But the statistics at Bagram are making a drastic turnaround, and the safety experts attribute this to a new comprehensive strategy of persistent depredation and habitat denial techniques in addition to hiring three local falconers. The team's new strategy has been so successful over the past month, that it is now being studied at various bases throughout the area of operation.

After employing aggressive depredation efforts and incorporating suggestions made by U.S. Department of Agriculture experts that visited the base in February, the team had cut the first quarter bird strikes in half.

The unit hired three local falconers to see what kind of impact it would have on the thousands of birds that were lining areas near the flight line.

"We hired the team from the local area for a three-month evaluation," Wallace said about the unit's effort to hire professional help. "This approach gave us access to local expertise so we are supporting the local economy at the same time. It's a win-win situation."

The colonel said the falconer team, using three falcons and handmade traps at hotspots around the airfield, caught or killed more than 50 birds on their first day. By the end of their first week in mid-March, the falconers had caught or killed more than 250 birds. More importantly, the birds that were not killed or captured quickly noticed the new predators in their neighborhood and began to disappear from the targeted areas.

"It was a pretty dramatic change after about 10 days," said Stiyer, who regularly scouted areas with a shotgun and pyrotechnics to scare off birds near the air traffic control tower. "It used to be so bad that we didn't have enough ammo to scare off the thousands of birds here. Now there are hardly any birds at all."

The safety team also attributed their dramatic turnaround to several other factors, including the team increasing their inventory of shotguns, ammunition and pyrotechnics for "harassing" birds, monitoring peak hours of bird migratory patterns, and implementing aggressive habitat denial techniques.

"The collective lethal, non-lethal and habitat denial efforts of the BASH program have proven highly effective and will likely become a benchmark program for other bases/forward operating bases in Afghanistan," said a recent report forwarded to senior leaders within Afghanistan.

The safety officers also have taken some of their program ideas "on the road."

Stiyer deployed to Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, March 8 through 11 to help develop a BASH program after a series of serious bird strikes at the airfield in eastern Afghanistan. The unit provided airfield management at Salerno with two shotguns, 1,000 shells and a draft BASH operating instruction for implementing bird watch conditions and active depredation on the flight line to minimize the threat of bird strikes.

"(FOB Salerno) never really had a plan in place because the Army's rotary wing aircraft typically don't have problems with bird strikes," Stiyer said. "The problem is that the Air Force C-130 (Hercules aircraft) that provide supplies to the FOB are more vulnerable to bird strikes, so we had to develop a program to minimize the emerging threat," Wallace said. "Now that we helped set up a BASH program here at one of the largest FOBs in the theater, they are taking off and running with it."

The safety office also recently shared their program details with safety experts throughout the AOR and Capt. Matt Strohmeyer, chief of flight safety, presented the unit's results during a recent International Security Assistance Force Flight Safety Conference in Kabul. Some of the units at the conference expressed interest in starting similar programs.

The safety office hopes their program will pay off over the long term and keep aircraft focused on their primary mission: supporting United States and coalition troops fighting insurgents on the ground.

"Sustaining the joint fight is what we're all about," Strohmeyer said.