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  • Don Baldwin

Wildlife strikes and the impact on aviation

Jan. 15, 2009 was a day that changed the aviation world forever. U.S. Airways flight 1549, with service from New York's Laguardia Airport to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, departed LaGuardia at 3:25 p.m. Shortly after takeoff, the crew heard a loud noise and lost power to both engines. Captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles were forced to make an emergency landing into the Hudson River.

The reason for the loss of power had nothing to do with mechanics, but rather something entirely different: a wildlife strike of Canadian Geese.

According to a July 2014 Federal Aviation Administration report, a record 11,315 wildlife strikes were reported in 2013. However, of those 11,315 strikes, 601 were considered "damaging," the least amount since 1996. The FAA also said that of all the wildlife strikes reported in 2013, 97 percent of the strikes involved birds, 2.2 percent involved terrestrial mammals, 0.7 percent involved bats and 0.1 percent involved reptiles.

The FAA's log of bird strike information shows that the majority of bird strikes occur during the months of July to October, which is when birds migrate south for the winter. According to an 2009 article NPR, Sacramento, Denver and Kansas City experienced the most bird strikes that year.

Robbie Bear, instructor of biology at K-State, explained the migration process in detail.

"Migratory birds fly north in the spring when they're adults and nest in the summertime," Bear said. "That winter, the baby birds migrate south because their food sources hibernate and on their way down they get confused with lights and airliners."

In fact, between Oct. 9, 2013 and Oct. 9, 2014, 37 bird strikes have occurred at Kansas City International Airport (MCI). In comparison, only 1 airport strike occurred at Manhattan Regional Airport during that span.

MCI actually teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1998 to develop a plan to reduce wildlife strikes, since there has been a consistently large population of hawks and owls flying around the airport. The USDA concluded that these species were attracted to airport grounds because the airfield has a substantial population of rodents.

"Airport land is the ideal place for birds to prey because the grass is short, which makes it easier for the birds to get their food," Bear said. "It is also usually fenced in, which helps contain the food sources to that specific area. Birds feast on airport land."

To combat rodent population, the USDA scattered zinc phosphide on airport ground, which eliminated 95 percent of voles and 66 percent of the mice population.

Joe McBride, marketing manager for MCI, said he cares about customer safety.

"The passenger of customer safety in the aircraft is paramount and that's why we partner with the USDA and their wildlife mitigation program," McBride said. "They have people here at the airport to manage wildlife around the airport and to ultimately keep them away."

While bird strikes made up the majority of wildlife strikes in 2013, 249 incidents involved terrestrial mammals. With this in mind, the FAA, Manhattan Regional Airport administration and the city of Manhattan worked together to construct a 19,000-foot perimeter fence around airport property. The fence is approximately 8-feet tall and was funded by the FAA's Airport improvement program, according to The fence was constructed in May and cost the city about $99,000.

Shane Wright, assistant airport director at Manhattan Regional Airport, said the fence is doing its job.

"No specific animal has given us any problems here," Wright said. "Deer and coyotes are the biggest threat to aircrafts, but the fence has done a nice job of keeping animals out."

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