04/07/08 — Strike Eagles vs. birds

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Strike Eagles vs. birds

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 7, 2008 2:01 PM

Chris Willis gets the call.

An F-15E has just been hit during a routine sortie.

You might think the 4th Fighter Wing commander would be the first to know.

And had it been enemy fire that struck that jet, he likely would have been.

But even though the commander is the chief of all the Strike Eagles housed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Willis is the expert on the birds that fly alongside them.

He is the one charged with learning more about their habits, to find ways to limit their interaction with the "birds" without a pulse -- the ones valued at tens of millions of dollars each.

An average 50 to 60 bird strikes are reported by 4th FW pilots each year.

And while most of them leave little more than a mess to clean up, they can be "disastrous."

Willis has seen the kind of damage a bird can inflict on a fighter and its crew.

He can recall an incident in Virginia in which a large bird downed a military aircraft.

The pilot was killed, he said.

So the USDA biologist takes his job seriously, hoping research will reveal ways to save lives.

"We want to know where we are hitting them and at what altitude we are hitting them so that, in hindsight, if we have to knock off an area completely or just not fly there at certain times, we can do that," Willis said. "Why put a pilot's life in danger when you don't have to?"

In combat situations, insurgents, enemy aircraft and suspected terrorists might top a fighter pilot's list of enemies.

But around their home station and in training areas, the turkey vulture, blackbird and mallard duck are among the ones keeping them looking.

And then there are the small perching birds -- killdeer that sit on the Seymour Johnson tarmac, eastern meadowlark and cedar waxwings.

Willis and his team represent the first line of defense against them.

It starts, he said, with habitat modification.

"We know, for example, that the small perching birds, say in the spring and fall, they come on the field if the grass is high and has seeds in it. That attracts them," he said. "So we keep the grass between seven and 14 inches."

In May 2005, before that practice was implemented, 10 strikes were reported near the flight line by 4th Fighter Wing pilots.

Last May? Zero.

And in the winter months, ducks and gulls cause problems in the air space above Goldsboro's waste water treatment facility.

"There will be anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 ducks and gulls over there from about November to April," Willis said.

So this year, his staff has partnered with the city and Federal Aviation Administra-tion to conduct a study there.

Fishing line is being strung across the five ponds housed on the 177-acre lot.

Maybe that would deter the birds from perching there, Willis said.

And although only one of the ponds is close to finished, the effect of the wire is already being realized.

"Of course, it's just research, but we know that on the pond that is closest to the base, there were 300 ducks there (last Monday)," Willis said. "On the pond next to it, the one that is 90 percent complete, there were three."

But even the experts understand that limiting birds in the area only reduces the risk for pilots.

After all, keeping all wildlife out the F-15E flight path would be impossible, Willis said.

So when strikes do happen, the specialists and air crews alike, document them.

"Any time a pilot knows there is a bird strike, they call in-flight emergency and land the plane -- whether they know there is damage or not," Willis said. "We try to meet the air crew right at the plane. What I am looking for is a little bit of 'snarge' -- blood and guts. But if I can find a feather, that really helps out."

Any remains picked off the jet go into a bag and are sent to the Smithsonian for identification.

About a week later, Willis can tell the pilot what he or she hit.

If it was, say, a turkey vulture, that particular air crew might proceed with caution the next time they are in the air space where the hit occurred.

Or they might try to single out roosts in the area and avoid the location altogether.

Either way, Willis said, the research is hailing results.

And results are critical when you are talking about the safety of American troops, he said.

So if you notice trash piled up within a five mile radius of the base gates, or see birds perching in high grass, it might be worth making a call to city or base officials.

You might just save a life, Willis said.

"Bird strikes are a huge problem, and not only on the military side but on the civilian side, too," he said. "Every year, the number of strikes, it's up in the thousands. Way up in the thousands."