Flock forecasters trying to prevent plane crashes Md. researchers draft system for predicting where birds will fly

June 22, 1998|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow, two specially trained operatives plan to strap on night vision goggles, row across a South Dakota lake, sneak up and grab suspected associates of a group that recently brought down an Iowa National Guard fighter jet.

While any captives are likely to squawk, it's for their own good. They're white pelicans, part of a flock of about 3,000 that congregates at the LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge. At least five pelicans collided with a single-seat F-16 over the prairie outside Ainsworth, Neb., on May 13. One smashed through the cockpit windshield, or canopy, while another was sucked into an engine. The pilot ejected, suffering broken bones. His $17.5 million plane was lost.

The ultimate aim of tomorrow night's raid is to curb what aviators call "bird strikes," which some safety experts say are as serious a threat as terrorism.

The two bird-nappers, Michael Yates and James Dayton, work for the Center for Conservation Research and Technology, based at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They plan to nab about 10 animals, fit them with lipstick-sized tracking devices and study their movements over the next several weeks.

At a time when frustrated airport managers and military aviation authorities routinely use deadly force to control nuisance birds, the Maryland center hopes to offer a peaceful alternative. It is crafting a computer program to show where birds are likely to be flying, the way meteorological programs predict snow squalls and thunderstorms.

Eventually, the center hopes to create a nationwide forecasting system that includes dozens of bird species for use by military and civilian fliers.

"We're sort of coming in on a white horse," says William S. Seegar, founder of the research center and director of the effort.

Seegar's team spent the past two summers tracking the flight patterns of white pelican colonies around the Navy's "Top Gun" fighter school in Nevada. Now they're looking at pelicans in the Midwest to see if the forecast system works there, too.

If so, Seegar plans to give the Iowa Air National Guard an early version of his bird forecasting system. Col. Dennis Swanstrom, anxious not to lose another of his unit's planes, says such a warning system "would be tremendous."

Planes have been slamming into birds since the dawn of aviation, but these mishaps may be increasing. Air traffic is expanding rapidly. So are bird populations, thanks to hunting restrictions and stricter environmental laws. (Since the 1960s, the number of Canada geese has climbed from 50,000 to about 2 million.)

Over the past three years, the Air Line Pilots Association reports, at least 74 people have been killed worldwide in collisions between planes and birds, and four large military aircraft have been destroyed. In the United States, the association estimates, military and civilian planes slam into birds about 5,000 times a year, causing $300 million in damage.

Birds hit windshields, sending shards of glass flying through the cockpit. They pummel nose cones and damage radar. Most dangerous of all, they get sucked into jet engines, causing the engines to lose power or shut down.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires manufacturers to build engines capable of surviving for 20 minutes after multiple hits from 2 1/2 -pound birds, or 15 seconds after "ingestion" of one 8-pound bird. (To comply, plane manufacturers fire chicken carcasses at their engines at 180 mph using a cannon.)

But many birds grow much bigger than an oven-stuffer. Canada geese can weigh 8 to 12 pounds. An adult white pelican can weigh 14 or 15 pounds, Seegar says.

Now, even a hulking trumpeter swan might seem like a bug on the windshield of a Boeing 737. But the power of any impact grows exponentially with speed. Canadian transportation officials say that a Canada goose hits a cruising airliner with a force equivalent to an African elephant stomping on a parked car.

Collisions can kill

Most impacts do little more than rattle the nerves of pilots and passengers. A few are deadly. A U.S. Air Force radar plane flew into a flock of Canada geese in Alaska two years ago, sucking four birds into two engines. The plane went down, killing 24. A Belgian C-130 military transport plane crashed in July 1996 after hitting a flock. Twenty-eight people died.

Paul Eschenfelder of the airline pilots group recalls flying a DC-9 cargo plane into Jacksonville, Fla., one night a few years back.

"There's this tremendous BANG!" he says. "Just like that."

A gull had hit the fuselage just above the windshield, smearing the upper glass with blood and feathers. Eschenfelder landed safely, but he's now an evangelist on the topic, urging the FAA to take the problem more seriously.

Military pilots train by flying low and fast, hugging the terrain. This makes them particularly vulnerable to bird strikes. Civilian jetliners, by contrast, typically cruise at much higher altitudes than birds. Their greatest danger exists during takeoffs and landings.

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