Risk to Military Aircraft Decreases as BASH Plans to Increase Overseas Locations

By Ms. Kathy Alward, Staff Writer

The U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT) continues to progressively move forward to decrease the risk to military aircraft by managing wildlife on airfields through the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) Program, according to Jenny Washburn, a wildlife biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services (WS). According to Washburn, the number of biologists assigned overseas will increase from the current three at existing foreign locations to include an additional full-time position at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, Italy, in the next fiscal year.

“We have three biologists stationed overseas: one in Kuwait and two in Afghanistan, and they operate on 4-month rotations,” said Washburn. “We’ve been assisting AFCENT for the last 10 years, so we are well established.” She pointed out that the work overseas actually started when her supervisor, Mike Begier, became the National Coordinator of the Airport Wildlife Hazards Program.

“The overseas program began in 2009, the same year Mike became the lead, but also the same year the commercial plane landed in the Hudson River. It’s when everyone began to recognize wildlife hazards in a greater way. Mike had just done an overseas site evaluation for BASH purposes in Afghanistan, and that’s when the program jelled,” said USDA communications specialist Carol A. Bannerman.

“There was a change in the wildlife strike reporting culture at airports after Miracle on the Hudson where reporting wildlife strike[s] slowly took on a more positive light,” added Washburn.

Although Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, did not report any wildlife strike injuries in 2009, a single bird strike at the air base in 2007 caused more than $1 million in damage, according to Bannerman. “After incorporating suggestions made at the time, the safety staff at Bagram reported bird strikes were cut in half for the first quarter of 2009. That was how the project took off,” said Bannerman. Work at Bagram and other locations include managing wildlife issues involving raptors (for example, Black Kites), waterfowl, pigeons, and mammals such as jackals.

Part of the job for USDA biologists is to work with the Safety Office on establishing a relationship with the host nation, if possible, in contested locations. Washburn emphasized that the biologists show respect for the host nations and cultural differences are honored. For example, the biologist in Kuwait will often sit and have tea with a representative of the host nation and discuss wildlife issues the Kuwaiti representative may be seeing. “We also have a strong working relationship with the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab, and our biologists overseas have contributed large amounts to their collection,” said Washburn.

“The civil program of Wildlife Services airport work has been around since about 1985 and has grown. We provide assistance at 869 military, civil, and joint-use airports throughout the U.S.,” said Washburn, with the work currently being conducted at the request of specific airports and supported by that airport financially.

USDA uses science-based, integrated methods to manage wildlife on airfields, according to Washburn, and focuses on habitat management by using tools such as anti-perch devices or netting in hangars to discourage wildlife. Washburn emphasized that, although habitat management may be more expensive, it is the best long term measure to push wildlife farther away from the active services, especially in the flight paths. “As they teach in schools these days, every living being needs certain things. Shelter, food, and water,” said Bannerman, as she added that biologists in the BASH environment ask how we can change food, water, and shelter for the protection of the wildlife and aircraft.

“Education and communication are the first steps. If everyone knows what you are doing, and why, then there is less conflict when management efforts are conducted,” said Washburn. An example is using pyrotechnics, which are sound- or light-scare devices used to harass birds from an area. The educational aspect is learning to use pyrotechnics correctly, for example, taking precautions to avoid pushing birds into the path of oncoming aircraft. The communication aspect is to make sure that operations and the tower are aware pyrotechnics will be used, emphasized Washburn.

The WS is currently researching bird behavior at the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC). This research helps identify such topics as birds’ different reactions to light, which variety of grass is likely to attract certain species of birds, and what types of lights or sounds have a higher probability of dispersing birds.

“We don’t just act; we try and be proactive in our choices and how it will affect things down the road,” said Washburn. The research conducted in the BASH program affects ongoing decision-making, according to Washburn. She described the work of their biologist, Garrett Klimkoski, who is studying a ponding issue in Kandahar and weighing the pros and cons of putting an environmentally friendly dye in the water that would kill some of the vegetation around the pond to make it less attractive to waterfowl. To find the best solution, he is also reading scientific papers and speaking with different parties, such as the safety office.

Technology—such as Geographical Information System (GIS), radar, and even cell phones—enhances management according to Washburn. Using a GIS mapping system, her coworker, Jason Kougher, has developed an app to collect the data for mapping and data analysis so biologists can show where the hotspots of wildlife activity are occurring, said Washburn. Cameras on cell phones also have assisted with bird identification along with bird identification guide apps.

More than 60 biologists have volunteered to deploy overseas in support of the Military/AFCENT project. Some of the biologists are veterans themselves or have relatives who have served in Southwest Asia. Bannerman noted, “Some biologists that regularly work at CONUS [Continental United States] military bases have volunteered for AFCENT to share the deployment experience and support their military colleagues.”

According to Washburn, “A lot of volunteers go more than once. They accept the risks, and the safety offices there are great with our biologists. They just take care of our men and women that go over, and all they [the biologists] want to do is help and stand with the military.”