It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a ... Collision

Crashes involving aircraft and critters soar as the number of flights increase and once-threatened wildlife species flourish


One of the last things you want to see when you're landing an airplane is a couple of large, clueless mammals cavorting on the runway.

But that's what greeted Greg Hockersmith two years ago as the sleek Hawker 800 corporate jet he was co-piloting touched down at the Fulton County Airport --- locally known as Charlie Brown. The jet was traveling at 120 mph.

"We saw the deer just to the right side of the runway," Hockersmith recalled. "At that speed, all you can do is keep the plane going straight and brace for impact."

What Hockersmith encountered --- a loud thud and a damaged aircraft --- is a growing problem for pilots across the nation. Collisions between animals and airplanes have quadrupled since 1990 to about 7,000 a year, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Charlie Brown officials last week completed work on a 6-foot-high electrified fence intended to thwart the problem there. The fence runs 14,000 feet around airport property and cost about $86,000, most of it financed by the FAA.

"There are a lot of animals out here," said Doug Barrett, Charlie Brown's manager. "It's an issue for us to keep the wildlife under control."

FAA statistics indicate there were about 66,000 reported "wildlife strikes" across the nation from 1990-2005. About 98 percent of the impacts were caused by birds.

But there were also 695 collisions with deer, 198 with coyotes, 12 with skunks, 11 with cats, 24 with dogs, 58 with turtles, 14 with alligators and three with horses.

Experts say there are many reasons for the increase in wildlife-plane collisions. For one thing, more people are flying --- the number of flights has nearly doubled since 1980. And the populations of many animal species that threaten aircraft are increasing.

"Deer numbers have increased tremendously," said Ed Cleary, a Washington, D.C.-based FAA biologist and expert on wildlife-aircraft collisions. "In 1900, there were about 350,000 white-tail deer [in the United States]. Today there's 28 million."

Worldwide, wildlife-airplane collisions have killed 194 people and destroyed 163 aircraft since 1988, according to air-safety statistics. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property has been destroyed.

Hockersmith was lucky. No crew members or passengers were injured in the Charlie Brown collision, though the two deer were killed instantly. The jet, owned by Cox Enterprises, parent company of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, sustained about $36,000 in damage.

Charlie Brown has occasional problems with wild animals for the same reason many airports do. It was built in a relatively remote area because nobody wanted airplanes taking off and landing nearby. Parts of the airport are just 1,500 feet from the Chattahoochee River.

"It's all woodland corridor," Barrett said. "We have deer. We have coyotes. We have a little of everything out here."

Over the past 15 years, there have been 25 animal-plane collisions at Charlie Brown, according to the FAA. The much busier DeKalb-Peachtree Airport had 176 animal collisions in the same time period. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world's busiest, had more than 500 --- mostly bird impacts.

Mike VanWie, assistant director of the DeKalb airport, said his facility doesn't have a problem with deer.

"We get the occasional coyote," he said. "But they don't hang out on the runway. They're busy chasing the quail."

VanWie said the airport recently trapped three coyotes to clear them from the field.

Hartsfield-Jackson, meanwhile, like most large commercial airports, has a sophisticated program to control wildlife near its runways, including compressed-air cannons to scare birds.



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