Friday, February 6, 2009

Living with birds (and other critters) at airports

Yesterday the National Transportation Safety Board released preliminary findings that pieces of birds indeed had been found in the engines of Cactus 1549, the Airbus that landed in the Hudson last month. But this should not drive timorous passengers to conclude that birds are winning the battle for the skies.

In an interesting piece in today, Katharine Mieszowski interviews the wildlife agent in charge of keeping critters off the runway at San Francisco International Airport. He uses devices like the "Phoenix wailer," a solar-powered electronic noisemaker that "periodically emits the predatory call of a red-tailed hawk, along with other alarming sounds, such as a helicopter followed by machine-gun fire."

In the very last paragraph, the bird shooer concludes that right now birds may be getting a bad rap, but they don't present a terrible danger to aviation so long as airports keep on shooing.

That's been my experience as a private pilot at airports too small to afford wildlife control. Many times I've sat on the runway waiting for formations of geese or clouds of starlings to clear the area. They go away eventually. All we grassroots pilots need is patience and a sharp eye, and sometimes quick reflexes.

We have to share our airports with four-footed critters, too. I once nearly had to do a go-round at a Wisconsin airport when a family of coyotes trotted across the runway just before my Cessna touched down, and I had to tap the brakes briskly. The airport manager said he used to send riflemen out to dispatch the animals, but coyotes are smarter than hunters and easily eluded them in the tall grass. "We just live with 'em," he said with a shrug.

Same thing at a northern Arizona airstrip while I tried to will an enormous bull elk that weighed more than my little airplane off the runway where he was preventing my takeoff with a belligerent glare. Finally I taxied back to the office and consulted with the manager, who hopped in his Jeep and charged the elk, honking all the way, while I followed at a close but safe distance, lifting off just after elk and jeep departed the blacktop.

A northern Illinois airfield tried to solve its deer problem by building a fence with a single electrified wire around the runway perimeter. It slathered the wire with peanut butter, reasoning that the deer, once shocked in the tasting, would depart. They found the peanut butter worth the zapping and kept coming back, bringing all their friends with them.

Yes, we just live with 'em. We have to.

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