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    Clear skies for Los Alamitos Army Airfield: Bird-avoidance program ups safety for all aircraft

    Clear skies for Los Alamitos Army Airfield: Bird-avoidance program ups safety for all aircraft

    Courtesy Photo | Dan Biteman, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tries to...... read more read more



    Story by Brandon Honig 

    California National Guard

    From above, the California Army National Guard airfield in Los Alamitos looks like a bulls-eye, according to Capt. Michael Fish. Aside from two golf courses that border the base, the surrounding area is densely populated, typical of Los Angeles area sprawl.

    The airfield’s open space has long attracted many species of birds, particularly predators that seek a large area to survey for prey. The avian traffic hasn’t caused any dangerous collisions with the Cal Guard or Army Reserve helicopters based there, but they do pose a serious threat to planes, like the US Airways flight Chesley Sullenberger famously emergency-landed in New York’s Hudson River following a bird strike in 2009.

    As the home to the only military airfield in Los Angeles and Orange counties, Joint Forces Training Base (JFTB) Los Alamitos is the region’s primary flight hub for emergency-response operations, which could involve any type of aircraft. Visitors to JFTB’s two runways in recent years, for instance, have included Air Force One and the military’s largest plane, the C-5M Super Galaxy.

    To ensure the base is safe for all types of aircraft, JFTB has instituted a new program that Fish said is one of the first of its kind for an Army airfield. Dan Biteman, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now works full-time at JFTB, mitigating the risk to aircraft any way he can.

    “We have a wide variety of species present on JFTB, and each reacts differently to the deterrent, hazing or capture methods available to us,” Biteman said. “The species that are present shift daily, weekly, seasonally and annually. … Monitoring the area consistently is important, because it can guide what kinds of methods we use.”

    A Significant Danger
    Only a few birds have collided with helicopters at JFTB in recent years, Fish said, because the aircraft move slowly at takeoff and landing, and are highly maneuverable. Plus, large predators like red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures seem to have learned which side of the road Americans drive on.

    “When I was flying, predator birds just ruled the field, but they knew what a helicopter was, and would stay away from it,” said Fish, who is the airfield’s administrative officer. “It was like they knew the rules of the road because they would always break to the right. They were very smart.”

    Though the bird strikes at JFTB all ended disastrously for the birds, they never posed a serious danger to a helicopter or its crew. Bird strikes have caused some fatal accidents at other airfields, but Fish said a helicopter pilot usually should be able to land safely after a collision, even if the bird destroys an entire rotor blade.

    That’s why Army airfields have been slow to adopt bird-avoidance programs: They mostly handle helicopters. But for facilities like JFTB, which works with a wide range of local, state and federal partners, a Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) prevention program is essential.

    The Federal Aviation Administration receives at least 2,300 reports of wildlife-related strikes involving civilian aircraft each year, and the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps add at least 3,000 more. Nonetheless, only an estimated 20 percent of actual bird strikes are reported, according to the Defense Department’s Partners in Flight program.

    Because of airplanes’ greater speed compared with helicopters, bird strikes pose a greater risk to a plane’s fuselage and windshield. Jet engines also can ingest a bird or group of birds, forcing an emergency landing.

    “With Sullenberger, they ingested those birds into the engines and both engines flamed out,” Fish said. “That same potential is here. Any aircraft taking off or landing can go through these birds.”

    Unique Challenges
    JFTB’s 1,319 acres include plenty of land for small animals like gophers and other potential raptor prey to burrow. Most of those areas are now tilled frequently at JFTB to keep them free of vegetation, because plants attract small animals, which use them as cover from predators like the red-tailed hawk.

    Decoy owls and wire spikes sit atop the many poles and high spots where raptors like to perch around JFTB, and Biteman has worked to eliminate any puddles on the base, which could attract some bird species.

    Biteman also keeps a detailed daily log describing the bird population on base, which enables him to advise the airfield on the safest areas for takeoff and landing. His data ultimately will provide a clearer picture of migratory patterns, which could influence flight schedules and routes.

    Those modifications all contribute to a safer JFTB, but the airfield will never be able to change some of the challenges associated with its neighborhood.

    “The golf courses that nearly surround the airfield have plenty of trees for birds to perch and nest, and there are some really large water hazards, which are a big problem if you’re trying to keep birds away. We also have the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge right next door, and the ocean is nearby,” Biteman said. “There are a unique set of challenges associated with managing wildlife on JFTB.”

    Scary Situation
    Since modifying the base won’t fully correct the problem, Biteman often shifts to the same solution you would, if you wanted to get rid of some birds: scare them away.

    Before he arrived, airfield personnel would sometimes drive a truck toward birds and honk the horn to move them off the airfield. Biteman has used that tactic but also brings in pyrotechnics: the bird banger, which is fired from a starter pistol and delivers a noise like a firecracker, and the screamer, which makes a whistling sound that is effective on some species.

    The noisemakers work on many birds at first, but most species eventually catch on and simply move to the other side of the field when Biteman fires. He spends more time setting up traps — Swedish goshawk traps, bal-chatri traps, net traps — so the birds can be relocated to better habitats.

    So far the traps have captured two great horned owls, a turkey vulture and a red-tailed hawk, which were transferred to the nonprofit South Bay Wildlife Rehab. The hawk was released at least 200 miles from the base, which Biteman said is the necessary distance so it won’t “smell” home and come back.

    With the combination of all those methods, Biteman expects to significantly decrease the risk of a dangerous bird strike at JFTB.

    “Reducing the bird population at JFTB to zero is an impossible goal,” said Tom Tandoc, JFTB’s environmental officer, “but we are doing everything we possibly can to make this place safe.”



    Date Taken: 04.22.2016
    Date Posted: 04.22.2016 15:10
    Story ID: 196261
    Location: LOS ALAMITOS, CA, US 

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