Flying Seasons

Wildlife vs. Airplanes

October 1, 2007

Polar bears on the airport

"Home on the Range" should be the theme song at many airports, but the second line has to be changed to, "Where the deer, elk, bulls, cows, vultures, pigs, geese, musk ox, and the polar bears play."

It's a zoo out there. Bears go for shopping sprees at the Seminole Towne Center mall in Sanford, Florida. Coyotes drop by a Chicago deli for a snack. Deer panhandle Texas drivers for food. So it's not surprising to find wildlife at local airports nationwide. Of 38 reports over the past four years in the AOPA Air Safety Foundation accident database concerning incidents between animals, birds, and airplanes, 30 involved deer. The remaining eight include a bull, calf, vulture, elk, and four geese.

Bears at 9 o'clock

Leave it to your fellow pilots to come up with even more exciting examples. Andy Gamache of Anchorage found polar bears watching his engine start-up and critiquing his taxi performance while operating at Alaska's Barter Island Long Range Radar Station Airport. Musk ox hang out at Deering Airport in Alaska, but you needn't bother to buzz them. "Buzzing just causes them to group closer together in a defensive reflex," Gamache said. Pilots change runways rather than argue with a four-legged bulldozer.

Damage to the aircraft from an impact with wildlife is usually substantial. In 2000, Jeffrey Jacobs of Vancouver, Washington, took an aerial view of a herd of elk crossing a runway at Astoria, Oregon, to munch the tender grass on the other side. Two years later, a Learjet 36A operating there at night as an air taxi hit a herd of elk as the jet reached takeoff speed, and despite heavy braking and deployment of a drag chute, the airplane ran off the end of the runway into a swamp. The pilots escaped before the aircraft was destroyed by fire. The airport at the time had 15,000 feet of animal control fence and was expecting a grant for 9,000 additional feet. The grant came through, and now the airport is a fortress against elk; none have been seen in a year, an airport worker said.

It's got to be a fence — electrified wire did nothing to block deer from Murray Field at Eureka, California. "It's a rare day when no deer are sighted at all," said David Kornreich of Eureka. "A couple of years ago, the county erected a 'fence,' which consisted of a single electrified wire about two feet off the ground. Needless to say, this did nothing whatever to solve the problem." The problem for Kornreich was a doe that began to cross the runway while his Piper Arrow was in the landing flare. The doe stopped well onto the runway and gazed directly toward the approaching propeller. "I swerved to the left to avoid her, while simultaneously raising the right wing. Luckily I still had enough airspeed for the aileron to be effective, and instead of going dead into my prop or wing, she banged her head into my flap. I had to replace the flap, but the deer walked away dizzy but unharmed." Kornreich added, "I could say that you should never land when deer are near the runway, but then my airport would close."

Marc Ogle of Woodlawn, Virginia, a deer hunter and veteran of deer-car strikes, warns that if you see one doe, there will be others right behind.

Feathered friends

Birds deserve equal time, thanks to the number of jet engines they have turned into flames following a strike. But piston aircraft are not immune to bird damage. Phil Kriley of Renfrew, Pennsylvania, was practicing night landings in a Cessna 172 when he spotted three white blobs (Canada geese) in the landing light as he was turning base to final. "Ba-boom boom! Three hits!" Kriley wrote in an e-mail. His CFI took control of the airplane and, because the engine was running rough, pulled the mixture control to stop the engine and safely glided to a landing. "One bird had come through the prop and impacted the air filter. The inboard portion of the right wing, just a few inches from the windshield, was crushed back to the gas tank. Finally we saw gore on the elevator and figured that either a third bird or a portion of one of the other two had hit the horizontal stabilizer and got stuck, temporarily jamming the elevator, but then fell away."

Big airports can fund big solutions to stay bird free, including trained bird-chasing dogs, an army of workers equipped with paint pellet guns, noise-making devices, and an on-site wildlife biologist. Folks at small airports can bring out the family dog and hope it happens to hate geese. "Most airport dogs I have seen are more interested in finding a shady spot under a wing or overhang than chasing geese," said Adam Zucker of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. "I often go to Lakewood Airport, New Jersey...and we always see these black wooden cutouts of dogs that look like Labs. They even have a bandana around their necks." Zucker wondered what the dogs were for, but then he noticed that wherever there were wooden dogs, there were no geese.

Maybe that would work at Pearson Field in Vancouver, Washington, where the airport lies next to a wildlife refuge. Pilots are careful to stay 2,000 feet above the refuge so as not to ruffle the feathers of the Canada geese, only to find upon landing that the geese spend their day at the airport.

Pilots gun their engines to scare their way through a flock blocking the taxiway, and the flock then grudgingly, and as slowly as possible, parts.

What will a Cessna 152 do with the windshield gone? It will descend, even if full power is applied to attempt a climb, as a student and instructor found out in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 2003. A black vulture came through the front window during ground-reference maneuver practice in day VFR conditions. The aircraft hit a field below nose first and rolled inverted, but the student and instructor received only minor injuries. The nose and main landing gear were broken by the impact, the vertical stabilizer and fuselage bottom were buckled, and the windscreen was mostly gone. The bird was found inside the aircraft.

How do you cure the problem? There seems to be no easy answer short of a summit meeting between animals and people. One clue comes from the fact that most incidents occur at night, so if it is dark, the airport has no animal control fencing, and the FAA's Airport Facility Directory (A/FD) or AOPA's Airport Directory warn of frequent wildlife, beware.

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.