AFGHANISTAN - There is an invasion taking place here every day, yet service members are almost completely oblivious to it.
The invaders can be found in trees or on rooftops, clinging to antennas or hiding in the nooks and crannies of shipping containers. You might even hear them communicating to each other in their own secret language.
These invaders are birds and the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Safety office is responsible for mitigating the bird-aircraft strike hazard.
Master Sgt. Andrew Van Houten, 455th AEW noncommissioned officer in charge of flight safety, has seen what damage a bird strike can do to an aircraft. Before joining the 455th AEW Safety Office, he was an F-15 Eagle crew chief deployed from RAF Lakenheath, England.
"I remember cleaning up all the birdstrikes off the aircraft and doing all the paperwork for inspections," said the Mount Vernon, Ohio, native, recalling the money spent on repairs and subsequent investigations. While costs can vary, one recent incident involving an A-10 Thunderbolt II cost more than $30,000 in repairs.
"It's a waste of Air Force funds," he said, and added that even when a birdstrike doesn't cost money, it still costs several man hours to inspect the aircraft and return it to mission-ready status.
"Any aircraft not serviceable is one less to keep the guys on ground outside-the-wire safe," Van Houten concluded.
Therefore, Van Houten goes out every day to try and remove birds and the small rodents they prey on. The work is conducted in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Scott Alls, a USDA wildlife biologist, said one of the bigger avian threats to aircraft is the black kite, a hawk-like bird with a wingspan of up to five feet.
"Sometimes we'll have five to ten thousand above the airfield," Alls said.
Van Houten said the working relationship with the USDA staff has greatly increased his knowledge about the flightline, above and beyond the training he received before joining the 455th AEW Safety Office.
"They're so willing to share the knowledge," said Van Houten of the USDA personnel who join him on flightline sweeps.
"Being able to work with USDA has accelerated my knowledge, probably 100 to 200 [percent]."
Van Houten and Alls are both armed with shotguns to eliminate particularly troublesome birds, but that is not the only tool they have at their disposal. Pyrotechnics are also used to harass and drive animals away.
"With pyros you get [the birds] to move and get those aircraft off to do what they have to do," Van Houten said.
However, Alls and Van Houten said the ultimate goal is to make the airfield unhospitable to pests. The safety office coordinates with the 455th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron to trim or remove the vegetation that grows between runways and taxiways.
"That way the birds don't want to be there," Alls said, "habitat management is really the key."
Animals that are killed must be disposed of in the same way as medical waste, by burning. However, some are frozen and sent to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., for further study.
"If it's in good shape, we'll ship it," Alls said. "Because the number of specimens they have from this part of the world is very slim."
Since March 1, Van Houten and Alls have removed approximately 1,300 animals and dispersed a further 30,000.
"I never realized how much went into keeping the airfield safe when it comes to this kind of threat," said Van Houten.
"It's not about killing animals ... it's about making the airfield safe."