Shooing Critters Away at Orlando

Jan. 15 -- In November a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 aborted takeoff after it struck four cattle egrets, damaging a blade inside one of the jet's engines.

Later that month a Delta Air Lines Boeing 767 hit a deer on the runway as the jet was coming in for a landing, causing damage to part of the landing gear.

And in December a United Airlines Airbus 320 struck five ring-billed gulls, resulting in a delayed takeoff and a cracked runway taxi light.

These are some of the most recent examples of the accidents at Orlando International Airport that you rarely hear about but are becoming more frequent as the airport has grown into the busiest in the state and increasing development near the airport pushes animals to relocate there.

Last year there were 42 incidents known as wildlife strikes, in which airplanes made contact with animals, according to airport records. In 2005 there were 48, up from 26 strikes in 2004.

Most strikes are with birds and generally pose no threat to passengers and cause little or no damage to the airplanes, though they cost airlines on tight schedules significant time and money.

"Every time a pilot suspects a bird strike they have to inspect the aircraft -- every fan blade," said Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Marilee McInnis. "It's the cost as well as the time delay that obviously make bird strikes a concern."

To combat the interruptions, Orlando International spent $3.2 million in recent months on projects aimed at reducing the number of critters that wander the airport's 13,000 acres.

The projects are part of the airport's master plan approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires commercial airports to take measures to help protect wildlife.

In 2006 there were 6,690 wildlife strikes reported across the country through September, according to a FAA database, with 97 percent involving various bird species.

From 2000 to 2005, Orlando International records show that cattle egrets were the type of bird most often struck for a total of 27 times followed by mourning doves at 21 times. Bald eagles collided with planes four times during that period and owls twice.

The airport has also reported strikes with alligators or crocodiles and deer, according to the FAA. Miami International Airport has even reported two strikes with iguanas.

"Birds are about 90 percent of what we deal with," said Johnny Metcalf, the airport's staff biologist and wildlife management supervisor. "We want to reduce the probability of a strike as much as we can."

He has several methods of choice.

There are various types of pyrotechnics that, launched by shotgun, are designed to explode in the air and scare birds away.

There is also strategy, he said, behind what types of plants are allowed to grow near runways and water bodies because the right choices in vegetation can greatly reduce the land's appeal to birds and other animals.

But one of the biggest efforts is the mass removal of largemouth bass from the 15 miles of lakes and waterways on airport property.

The bass themselves are harmless, but they attract large flocks of hungry birds that can pose a threat on the runways.

Along with researchers from the University of Florida, Metcalf and his staff have caught 10,000 fish during the past two years and transferred them to lakes elsewhere in Central Florida.

There are so many fish -- some as big as 14 pounds -- in the water near the airport, the men paid to net them say it's so easy it's almost like cheating.

"We haven't put what I think is a dent in it," said Darren Pecora, a UF biologist.

In about an hour on a recent brisk January morning they caught more than 40 big ones.

The fish are temporarily stunned by long electrical tentacles dragged through the water by the boat and then are scooped up in a net and stored in a holding container.

Each fish is measured and tagged so the scientists can track it once it's transferred.

The largemouth bass from the airport are trucked to Lake Griffin near Leesburg, where algae blooms in recent years depleted the bass population that attracted sport anglers.

Daniel Canfield, UF professor of limnology and director of Florida Lake Watch, said the program is helping Lake Griffin and ultimately could help rebound the local economy if anglers return there.

He said Orlando International is the only airport he is currently working with, but would like to include others in the future because the removal of the fish helps the airports as well as struggling lakes where the fish are transferred.

"We believe next year we ought to be stocking other lakes in the chain that are hurting," Canfield said of the research project he would like to expand.

While Canfield and his team of scientists try to balance the ecosystems of struggling lakes in Florida, Metcalf, the airport biologist, is deliberately upsetting Mother Nature in order to save animals and the planes from future collisions.

"We'd like to try to make the lakes as sterile as possible," he said. "An ideal situation would be to have just water."

Copyright (c) 2007, The Orlando Sentinel.



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