Airports work to increase safety


Dec. 02--CLARK COUNTY -- Chris Loftis was armed with what looked like a short revolver when he got out of his pickup truck and stood on a grassy strip near a runway at the Indianapolis International Airport. Loftis loaded the device, slipped on ear muffs, raised his arm and fired.

It wasn't a bullet that came out, but a big bang. Loftis had fired a noisemaker, a weapon of choice to scare away birds from the flight paths of airplanes.

"Should we try the whistler?" Loftis asked before firing off a round that emitted a Fourth-of-July fireworks screech, but without the smolder or sparks.

Loftis is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Equipped with an array of techniques -- from noisy pyrotechnics to practical advice on wildlife-repellant landscaping -- he's part of a team of USDA biologists working with 10 small and large airports around Indiana to reduce a threat that can send terror into the hearts of pilots.

For airline passengers compelled to shed their shoes and bottled water before passing through metal detectors and body scanners, wildlife may not seem like a priority level threat.

But when birds and planes collide, it has the potential to cause a calamity like the one that occurred in January 2009 when a flock of geese flew into the engines of a U.S. Airways jetliner that had just taken off from New York's LaGuardia airport.

When the birds hit, the engines flamed out, forcing Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger -- a Purdue University graduate -- to land the plane on the Hudson River. His deft skills were credited for saving the 155 passengers.

The incident made worldwide headlines. But airline experts say there are thousands of bird-strikes every year.

According to a Federal Aviation Administration database, there have been more than 110,000 wildlife strikes since 1990, when the database was first established. Most involve birds, but coyote and deer also rank high.

At Clark County Regional Airport, deer strikes are the most common wildlife problem with at least two instances occurring in the past few years, said Melodee McNames, airport manager.

"Some airports don't report because they don't want the public to think they're unsafe," said Michael Medvescek, director of operations at the Indianapolis airport. "We report because we think the only way for us to see what wildlife issues we have is to track them. If you can't track it, you can't manage it."

McNames agreed that not all of the incidents involving wildlife have been reported at Clark Regional Airport with only four incidents listed online since 2001, three involving deer. Anything that does involve deer, especially if there is damage, is reported by the airport. But reports involving other wildlife are often optional.

"It's left up to the aircraft owners to report," McNames said. "If there is no damage it probably went unreported. I'm sure there are problems where most people don't file [the paperwork]."

The biggest problem facing the airport is fencing around the airfield, which is bordered on its east side by Silver Creek woods.

"Until we get funds to fence the entire airport, we're going to have issues with deer in the airport," McNames said. "Funds for that type of thing probably won't be available to us until maybe 2014."

She explained that additional funding and grants will not be available until the airport completes its runway expansion, which is under way and is the first priority for the airport and the FAA. Once the funding is available for animal mitigation and prevention, Clark Regional Airport will still have a considerable amount of work to accomplish.

Managing the wildlife at an airport can be surprisingly time and resource consuming, said Judy Loven, state director for USDA's wildlife services. "You wouldn't think airports, with all the noise, lights, and traffic, would attract wildlife," Loven said. "But wildlife adapts."

But inside the fence are large swaths of open fields occupied by rodents that are food for predatory birds like hawks and vultures. Both species are considered soaring birds, attracted to the thermal heat patterns created by long stretches of hot pavement.

Mitigating the potential damage requires year-round vigilance by airport staff trained to carry out an integrated wildlife plan -- a series of escalating steps designed to minimize encounters between animal and aircraft.

Those steps range from sound-emitting "bird bangers" to netting that covers roofs where birds like to roost. It also includes covering trash bins to eliminate them as food sources, and using native grasses rather than flowering bushes and trees that produce berries and seeds that animals like to feed on.

The absence of colorful landscaping has prompted complaints at some airports in Indiana where the USDA biologists are working.