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Keeping Our Military Pilots Safe from Wildlife Strikes

Posted by Gail Keirn, USDA APHIS Public Affairs Specialist in Animals
Jun 12, 2017
Martin Mendoza & Wildlife Aviation Hazards Program Coordinator Michael Begier present Certificates to WS biologists.

“Very hot, sandy and dry” is how APHIS Wildlife Services (WS) biologist Matt Miller describes the area around the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia. Matt is one of three wildlife biologists (see below) who returned home in early April after serving 4 months in the Middle East helping to keep our military pilots safe:

  • Matt Miller, WS-Indiana; Stationed with the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia
  • M. Lee Taylor, WS-Tennessee/Kentucky; Stationed with the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia
  • Kory McLellan, WS-Florida; Stationed at Bagram Airbase and Kandahar, Afghanistan

While in Southwest Asia and Afghanistan, Miller, Taylor, and McLellan’s mission was simple, but not easy— to protect military pilots and their planes from wildlife hazards around U.S. Air Force bases.

“Working under extreme conditions in the desert of Southwest Asia was difficult at times,” states Lee Taylor. “But we knew our efforts to keep animals away from the runways and flight paths was a big help to our military pilots.”

Wildlife strikes (or bird strikes as they are often called) are a problem at airports around the world. Estimates suggest that wildlife strikes cost the U.S. civil aviation industry about $625 million annually, and have resulted in nearly 500 deaths worldwide. For U.S. military, wildlife strikes cost more than $100 million in damages annually, and have resulted in at least 29 deaths and 30 lost aircraft between 1990 and 2009.

Since 1990, WS has partnered with the Department of Defense to provide wildlife hazard assistance at more than 80 domestic military air bases. Starting in 2009, that effort extended to several bases overseas. From 2009 to 2012, the rate of wildlife strikes at the overseas bases decreased by 65 percent, amounting to a $2.6 million reduction in wildlife strike-related damage and repair costs.

Although approximately 97 percent of wildlife strikes are collisions with birds, aircraft strikes with mammals also occurs.  In the Middle East, some of the interesting wildlife hazards at the bases included common mynas, black kites, Cape hares, and golden jackals.

“We spent a lot of time mending fences and removing attractants to keep wildlife off the runways,” notes Kory McLellan, the airport biologist assigned to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. “Golden jackals are similar to coyotes. They’d come onto the air base at night in search of food.”

While most efforts were focused on modifying the habitat or scaring animals away from the air bases, sometimes animals had to be lethally removed, especially if they posed an immediate hazard. In those cases, some of the animal carcasses were collected and sent to the Smithsonian Bird Lab and other facilities as wildlife specimens for research.

Each wildlife biologist found their accomplishments overseas very fulfilling and agreed the reward was helping safeguard our military, which recognizes and appreciates Wildlife Services work to ensure safe air flight.

On April 6, Miller, Taylor, and McLellan were congratulated and presented with certificates of appreciation by WS’ Associate Deputy Administrator Martin Mendoza and the National Coordinator for the WS National Airport Wildlife Hazards Program Michael Begier.

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Category/Topic: Animals

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John Humphrey
Jun 03, 2017

Great work these guys and their peers do in dangerous environments especially for wildlife biologists. I would love to research the black kites use in and around the air bases to better understand their threats to aircraft safety.

Christie L Heiser
Jun 08, 2017

I went from the USDA to the Army working here in Kuwait at the Veterinary Treatment Facility, we have seen some Kit Foxes from Ali Al Salem in the Clinic as well as Falcons, Steppe Eagles, Egyptian Nightjars, Owls and other wildlife. Wildlife & stray cats & dogs are an issue on all the Bases over here. Glad that Wildlife Services is participating on helping keeping us safe over here!

Eric Uhlfelder
Sep 07, 2017

How could you write such an article and fail to mention the use of avian that the DOD has extensively researched and endorsed in a 2009 IVAR study. And Israel was the first to find the value of avian radar, along with understanding migratory patterns, when it sought to reduce the deadly costs of birdstrikes with its pilots.

Is avian radar being used and you didn't mention it? Or did you intentional seek to protect USDA contracts?

Ben Weaver
Sep 12, 2017

@Eric Uhlfelder - thank you for your comment. Avian radar, integrated with other management tools and air traffic control, may someday play an advisory role in reducing bird strikes for civil and military aviation. USDA is working toward that goal in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. military, universities and radar vendors. Although our experts make use of avian radars and their information when possible, the tool was unavailable at the Middle Eastern locations mentioned in the blog. A 2016 study by USDA and university researchers suggests that avian radar can be a useful tool for monitoring flock activity at airports, but less so for monitoring single large-bird targets such as raptors. So, even where functional, radar cannot replace the need to implement and pursue wildlife management programs at airports to disperse or remove high-risk birds and to eliminate bird-attractive habitats.