McGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, N.J. -- Before any jets here take flight, the falcons fly.
Every day, as dawn spreads over the long runways separated by broad grass fields at McGuire Air Force Base, a handler with a falcon gripping his black leather mitt steps into the middle of the expanse.
The handler radios the flight-control tower to notify it of his presence. Then he peels off a small, leather hood -- which looks much like early aviators' headwear -- that blinds the falcon, lets go of the leather jesses attached to anklets on the falcon and whips his arm forward into the wind to launch the bird.
For two years, this scene has played out at least five times a day across the Burlington County base's runways to protect the dozens of Air Force tanker and cargo jets that land and take off each day.
The falcons, handlers say, chase away small birds that could collide with a jet taking off or landing. A collision can damage the aircraft's body or the engine's fan blades.
In rare instances, an aircraft has to alter its flight or even crashes.
3 F-16s lost
The Air Force has lost three F-16s in the last four years because a bird punctured the jet's canopy, officials said. One pilot died.
On Sept. 22, 1995, an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska crashed after its two left engines pulled in several Canada geese. That crash, which killed all 24 people on board, caused the Air Force to re-evaluate its Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program.
"That was a wake-up call," said Eugene LeBoeuf, a scientist with the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M.
After that, the Air Force began contracting with the World Bird Sanctuary of St. Louis to use falcons to get rid of birds.
The Air Force uses other methods, too.
Dover Air Force Base in Delaware uses border collies to flush Canada geese off the premises. Some bases use fireworks. Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri uses a radio-controlled plane.
Each base must determine the best method for dealing with its wildlife problems, officials said.
McGuire uses eight falcons to deal with its primary wildlife problems: starlings, blackbirds, sparrows, mourning doves, marsh hawks, meadowlarks, barn swallows and kestrels that hunt in the fields or roost in the thick pine and hardwood forests that ring the base.
"Ideally, you should look at your airfield and see what are the precise hazards to your movements, and find out what it is that keeps them out there," LeBoeuf said.
Three handlers from the World Bird Sanctuary have worked daily, from dawn until dusk, to clear the air of birds around McGuire.
The interloping birds learn to stay away, handlers say.
"If you continuously fly the birds throughout the day, then they'll get tired of being harassed," said Patrick T. McDonald, who directs the program at McGuire.
Sanctuary handlers also work at Travis Air Force Base in California and Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, he said. During the day, the peregrine, saker, Barbary and lanner falcons perch outside McDonald's trailer office, tethered to short wooden stoops. Each has its own personality, and they tend to be mild-mannered toward humans because they were bred in captivity, McDonald said.
But in the air, the falcons inspire fear among the birds.
Sometimes, there are birds for the falcons to chase away. Other times, the falcons fly simply to announce their presence to birds watching from afar.
A marble-sized radio transmitter is clipped to their tail feathers in case the falcons chase a bird out of sight and the handlers need to track them.