Flock forecasters trying to prevent plane crashes Md. researchers draft system for predicting where birds will fly


Tomorrow, two specially trained operatives plan to strap on night vision goggles, row across a South Dakota lake, sneak up and grab suspected associates of a group that recently brought down an Iowa National Guard fighter jet.

While any captives are likely to squawk, it's for their own good. They're white pelicans, part of a flock of about 3,000 that congregates at the LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge. At least five pelicans collided with a single-seat F-16 over the prairie outside Ainsworth, Neb., on May 13. One smashed through the cockpit windshield, or canopy, while another was sucked into an engine. The pilot ejected, suffering broken bones. His $17.5 million plane was lost.

The ultimate aim of tomorrow night's raid is to curb what aviators call "bird strikes," which some safety experts say are as serious a threat as terrorism.

The two bird-nappers, Michael Yates and James Dayton, work for the Center for Conservation Research and Technology, based at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They plan to nab about 10 animals, fit them with lipstick-sized tracking devices and study their movements over the next several weeks.

At a time when frustrated airport managers and military aviation authorities routinely use deadly force to control nuisance birds, the Maryland center hopes to offer a peaceful alternative. It is crafting a computer program to show where birds are likely to be flying, the way meteorological programs predict snow squalls and thunderstorms.

Eventually, the center hopes to create a nationwide forecasting system that includes dozens of bird species for use by military and civilian fliers.

"We're sort of coming in on a white horse," says William S. Seegar, founder of the research center and director of the effort.

Seegar's team spent the past two summers tracking the flight patterns of white pelican colonies around the Navy's "Top Gun" fighter school in Nevada. Now they're looking at pelicans in the Midwest to see if the forecast system works there, too.

If so, Seegar plans to give the Iowa Air National Guard an early version of his bird forecasting system. Col. Dennis Swanstrom, anxious not to lose another of his unit's planes, says such a warning system "would be tremendous."

Planes have been slamming into birds since the dawn of aviation, but these mishaps may be increasing. Air traffic is expanding rapidly. So are bird populations, thanks to hunting restrictions and stricter environmental laws. (Since the 1960s, the number of Canada geese has climbed from 50,000 to about 2 million.)

Over the past three years, the Air Line Pilots Association reports, at least 74 people have been killed worldwide in collisions between planes and birds, and four large military aircraft have been destroyed. In the United States, the association estimates, military and civilian planes slam into birds about 5,000 times a year, causing $300 million in damage.

Birds hit windshields, sending shards of glass flying through the cockpit. They pummel nose cones and damage radar. Most dangerous of all, they get sucked into jet engines, causing the engines to lose power or shut down.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires manufacturers to build engines capable of surviving for 20 minutes after multiple hits from 2 1/2 -pound birds, or 15 seconds after "ingestion" of one 8-pound bird. (To comply, plane manufacturers fire chicken carcasses at their engines at 180 mph using a cannon.)

But many birds grow much bigger than an oven-stuffer. Canada geese can weigh 8 to 12 pounds. An adult white pelican can weigh 14 or 15 pounds, Seegar says.

Now, even a hulking trumpeter swan might seem like a bug on the windshield of a Boeing 737. But the power of any impact grows exponentially with speed. Canadian transportation officials say that a Canada goose hits a cruising airliner with a force equivalent to an African elephant stomping on a parked car.

Collisions can kill

Most impacts do little more than rattle the nerves of pilots and passengers. A few are deadly. A U.S. Air Force radar plane flew into a flock of Canada geese in Alaska two years ago, sucking four birds into two engines. The plane went down, killing 24. A Belgian C-130 military transport plane crashed in July 1996 after hitting a flock. Twenty-eight people died.

Paul Eschenfelder of the airline pilots group recalls flying a DC-9 cargo plane into Jacksonville, Fla., one night a few years back.

"There's this tremendous BANG!" he says. "Just like that."

A gull had hit the fuselage just above the windshield, smearing the upper glass with blood and feathers. Eschenfelder landed safely, but he's now an evangelist on the topic, urging the FAA to take the problem more seriously.

Military pilots train by flying low and fast, hugging the terrain. This makes them particularly vulnerable to bird strikes. Civilian jetliners, by contrast, typically cruise at much higher altitudes than birds. Their greatest danger exists during takeoffs and landings.

Trouble is, airports make ideal habitats for many birds. They are broad, largely grassy open spaces, typically with water nearby.

To scare or to hunt

Airport crews have used an eclectic collection of technology to scare the animals off runways, including remote-controlled model aircraft made to look like falcons, recordings of birds warning of predators, and automatic propane cannons. More recently, a few large airports have turned to effective though very expensive alternatives -- falcons and border collies.

But when other methods fail, the intentional killing begins. Crews at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport shoot a couple of thousand birds a summer. U.S. Department of Agriculture agents have snared geese for slaughter at airports, including Dulles International and fields in Seattle, Chicago, Kansas City and Anchorage. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, roundups reduced aircraft repairs by $1 million in 1996 -- and yielded 6,000 pounds of goose meat valued at $40,000.

John Stewart, manager of airport operations at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, says BWI doesn't have a goose problem. But after heavy rains, worms wiggle out of the soil and onto the runways, attracting clouds of gulls.

To chase them away, Stewart dispatches two Chevy Suburbans outfitted with loudspeakers that broadcast gull distress calls. Crews fire shotguns with blank cartridges. Sometimes, though, these methods fail. The gulls just flap a few hundred yards further down the runway.

"I have spent days and days out there trying to get them to move," Stewart says.

On rare occasions, Stewart says, he has ordered his troops to use live ammunition. That quickly gets the gulls' attention, he says.

Some conservationists grumble that air safety officials are trigger-happy.

"The question is whether we destroy wildlife for the convenience of planes," says Julius Shultz of Harrison, N.Y., a member of the airport committee of the Sierra Club's Atlantic Chapter.

But airport managers and others say they are always searching for friendly methods for controlling birds. Richard A. Dolbeer, head of the Department of Agriculture's animal damage control unit, sees promise in efforts by Seegar and the U.S. Air Force's Bird Air Strike Hazard (BASH) team to create computerized bird forecasting systems.

"This is, to me, a very exciting breakthrough," he says.

Tracking by satellite

Seegar and his colleagues have been working since summer 1996 near Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada. The base sits midway between several lakes that serve as breeding and foraging grounds for waterfowl, including the pelicans.

"It scares me to death to think about flying around there in an F-16," says Seegar, 49, of Glen Arm.

Researchers fitted the pelicans with satellite transmitters and tracked them during their daily commute from breeding to feeding grounds. Using that data, they have come up with a computer model of pelican behavior that they'll adapt to the upper Midwest. This fall, they plan to give it to National Guard air traffic controllers, who will use it to warn pilots away from clusters of birds.

In coming years, Seegar says, he hopes to expand the model to include the 10 bird species the military considers the greatest threat, including turkey vultures, and cover all of North America. Later, he hopes to add the birds that frequently collide with civilian planes.

Pub Date: 6/22/98

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