In 2003 a Luke Air Force Base pilot was making an approach toward Gila Bend when a turkey vulture was sucked into the aircraft engine. The pilot ejected and survived, but unfortunately, the aircraft was lost. Incidents like this one prompted the creation of a program to keep pilots safe and save the Air Force money.
“The Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program is designed to methodically reduce the inherent danger that comes with flying aircraft in the same airspace as birds,” said Master Sgt. Chad Thurgood, 56th Fighter Wing flight safety superintendent. “The program coordinates and directs several groups, squadrons and base agencies to minimize the threat.”
It’s not just the birds that cause a threat to aircraft.
In addition to controlling birds, the program also monitors ground animals since they can attract predatory birds such as hawks said Maj. Steven Wilinski, 56th FW flight safety chief. Dead animals are also removed since they draw in scavengers such as vultures. Furthermore, larger animals like coyotes can be struck on the runway causing significant damage to aircraft.
Although most bird strikes don’t cause damage to aircraft, when they do, the damages can include impaired blades, dents, cracks and even downing of an aircraft.
Thurgood said bird strikes have caused loss of control and engine failure in the past, resulting in an aircraft crash. In fiscal 2012, there were 58 bird strikes; six caused more than $78,000 in repair costs at Luke.
Certain measures are taken to ensure the safety of Luke’s pilots and aircraft and keep the birds and other pests away.
“Fence lines are checked daily to make certain larger animals are not digging under the fence,” Wilinski said. “Additionally, the environment plays a large role. We try to reduce the attractiveness of the airfield to birds by keeping the grass short, clearing ditches, removing standing water, removing brush and cutting down trees. We also work with local farmers to try to minimize the crops that attract large numbers of birds.”
Several agencies are involved in monitoring the birds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, flight safety, the supervisor of flying, and pilots monitor the number and types of birds on the airfield, Thurgood said. Also, there is a doppler radar in the control tower called NEXRAD, which works similar to a weather radar. It helps track birds and their location.
Similar to various weather conditions, there are also bird-watch conditions to keep pilots safe.
“BWCs are used to help limit pilot exposure to bird strike threat,” Wilinski said. “For example, if there is enough bird activity on the airfield to drive a BWC to moderate, pilots are not allowed to fly repeated patterns. During BWC severe, local flying stops and flight safety must go out to the airfield to remove and disperse the birds.”
While many Luke personnel play a role in the BASH program, the efforts of wing safety staff ensures the program’s success.
“We own the BASH program, and we are responsible for tracking bird activity and bird strikes,” Wilinski said. “We are also responsible for prevention measures such as controlling the bird population and dispersal efforts. We educate pilots, airfield managers and tower personnel. Most importantly, our goal is to keep our pilots safe.”