Taking birds off the map
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- For almost one year now, Airmen 1st Class Marnell Dillingham and Jarrett Dowey have been cruising around the flightline three times a day, armed with a pail of bird scare ammunition and two shotguns. While out there, their role is to scare birds that fly too close to the flightline.
The two 35th Operations Support Squadron Airmen help reduce bird strikes on the flightline. According to Birdstrike Committee USA, these environmental hazards have been the cause of hundreds of deaths and millions of dollars in aircraft damages a year.
"Preventing bird strikes is one of the most important parts of our job," said Dillingham. "If a bird strike happens, it could put our pilots, crew members and passengers in a very dangerous situation. Birds have been known to cause aircraft crashes."
The Federal Aviation Administration receives annual reports recording thousands of wildlife related strikes. Strikes involving military aircraft cause approximately $75 million in damage a year.
In an effort to combat this environmental hazard, the Department of Defense pushes to improve aviation safety programs. One of these programs, the Bird and Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard prevention program, requires constant interaction among aviation safety members, air operation shops, pilots and aircrews.
"To ensure the safety of everyone, we coordinate constantly with the aircraft safety office, the supervisor of flying operations and the airfield control tower," said Dillingham.
There are two types of control measures, active control and passive control, said Dowey.
Active control is when pyrotechnic, bioacoustics and depredation methods are used to provide short-term relief. Pyrotechnics use BASH cannons, which produce loud, booming sounds to scare off birds in the flightline area. Bioacoustics, or the broadcast of local bird distress signals, is another way to provide immediate, although short-term, relief. Depredation allows Airmen to scare off birds that roost on the taxi-ways and cannons by shooting at them with shotguns loaded with bird scare cartridges.
Passive control measures involve environmental factors, such as maintaining grass height, smoothing out hills and eliminating forestry. Trees, shrubs and other plants can draw in wildlife for food, shelter and roosting sites for birds, so it's important to eliminate them from aircraft flying area. By smoothing out hills, it maintains the draining of streams in wet areas.
"After it rains and if there are hills, small ponds can form," said Dowey. "Not only does drinking water attract wildlife, but birds find these spots enjoyable for their morning baths."
Although bird strikes cause death and aircraft destruction, not all strikes end with the same results. Most of the time, pilots hear a thump and later aircraft management finds a dead bird on the flightline, said Dillingham.
"When we find these carcasses, we send it to safety for further study," said Dowey.
To identify birds involved in strike events, the remains are collected and analyzed. Even if the remains are tissue and feather fragments, they are sent to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian Feather Identification Lab is equipped to perform DNA analysis on blood samples and microscopic feather analysis. By identifying the bird species involved in the strike, researchers and airfield management can better understand why certain birds are attracted to a particular area. This increases the elimination of bird strikes.
Not only is the safety and well-being of servicemembers a high priority for airfield management, but the continuation of the 35th Fighter Wing' s mission is also a vital concern.
"For every aircraft not in the air, that's a pilot not training or completing the wing mission," said Dowey.
But not just anyone can drive up to a bird on the flightline and fire off a shotgun. Each airfield management operation coordinator is trained and certified to scare off birds. To stay certified, they have to re-take a test every year.
"At the Draughon range, we did our practical training with a shotgun," said Dillingham.
"The next part is a verbal test administered by our certifier to see if we know all the rules and regulations for shooting birds on the flightline."
The Airmen take care in identifying endangered birds and in what direction to shoot to prevent migration near jets, said Dowey.
Although Dillingham and Dowey respect the importance of their job, they can't help but acknowledge the enjoyment the job provides them.
"Normally we're processing flight plans for pilots, administering inspections and ensuring flightline condition perfection," said Dillingham. "Heading out three times a day to shoot at birds is the highlight of our day."