In July 2013, a military aircraft at Sheppard AFB struck a cattle egret during a training flight, forcing the pilot and co-pilot to eject before the plane crashed. The subsequent investigation found the pilots delayed ejection long enough to avoid crashing in the city of Wichita Falls; however, both pilots were injured and the $8 million aircraft was a total loss.
Unfortunately, bird aircraft strike hazards are not uncommon. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, wildlife aircraft strikes have resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives worldwide, as well as billions of dollars in aircraft damage.
Just last month, an Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon suffered a bird strike during its approach to Kelly Airfield at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Initial reports indicate that the bird was ingested into the engine. Fortunately, the pilot was able to land safely. The estimated cost of the damage to aircraft’s engine ranges from $500,000 to $2 million. The military is conducting an accident investigation, which may take several months to complete.
It is because of these hazards that officials at Joint Base San Antonio became concerned when personnel identified a consistent pattern of cattle egrets — large birds capable of causing catastrophic damage — and other birds flying directly over the airfield taxiways and runways at Kelly Field. Joint Base San Antonio backtracked their flight path to the large roost at what is known as “bird island” at the city-owned Elmendorf Lake Park.
Joint Base San Antonio and the U.S. Department of Agriculture approached the city of San Antonio seeking assistance in addressing the hazards associated with a large number of birds surrounding Elmendorf Lake Park. The USDA has developed a nonlethal, humane mitigation plan that includes various methods to deter birds from roosting and nesting at Elmendorf Lake Park.
These methods involve modifying the habitat by cutting the canopy by 50 to 70 percent, clearing underbrush and removing dead trees to make the island less desirable for nesting. The USDA will then use a variety of harassment tools, including scarecrows, pyrotechnics, propane cannons and horns or sirens, periodically in the evenings to discourage the birds from returning to the roost location. The USDA plans to track movements of birds to new locations, document and watch for impact on the airfield and surrounding neighborhoods. It is probable that some birds will remain at “bird island,” but the objective of the plan is to humanely reduce the overpopulation to minimize the risks of bird aircraft strike hazards.
This plan has been discussed with the neighboring community, including two public meetings in February and March, an SASpeakUp survey that was conducted from May to June and a review of the 36 survey responses received at a stakeholders meeting in July. Some of the recommendations, such as introducing predators to the island or capturing and releasing the birds, were deemed not viable due to the potential for harm to the animals. Other recommendations, such as changing flight patterns and reducing foraging areas near the airfield, are included in the current plan. And an idea to purchase a bird radar system is being evaluated by JBSA.
But the fundamental plan — discourage further roosting at Elmendorf Lake Park through nonlethal methods — remains the same. As does the intent not to begin the mitigation until after there are no more eggs in nests and the current breeding season is complete.