JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —
A bird strike is a collision between a bird and an aircraft, but the term is often expanded to cover other wildlife strikes, such as bats or ground animals.
Despite significant dispersion, depredation and avoidance, U.S. Air Force pilots face this rare danger every time they don gear and sit in the cockpit.
One of Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph’s most recent bird strikes occurred in November. Lt. Col. Kristen Kent, commander of the 39th Flying Training Squadron, was flying solo, returning from training in the military operating area to the east of the base.
“The bird struck just over the top of my helmet, penetrating the canopy and causing a large portion of it to shatter,” she said. “I declared an emergency and returned to Randolph via a straight-in approach to a full-stop landing.”
During pilot school students endure an extensive amount of emergency management training for situations just like these. Kent credits her training for giving her the confidence to efficiently handle the incident.
“Initially, I was surprised at the time of the strike, then I started going through the steps to ensure I was not injured and the aircraft was flyable,” she recalled. “After that, I initiated the procedures to recover the aircraft with a portion of the canopy missing.”
Lt. Col. Rene Carrillo, 435th Fighter Training Squadron commander, encountered his first bird strike during a two-ship basic fighter maneuvers training sortie in a T-38C Talon.
After cross-checking his wingman’s position for seemingly a split second, he came face-to-face with a huge vulture, with wings spread like a pterodactyl.
“It was not moving on my windscreen, only getting bigger, and impacted the aircraft before I could react,” Carrillo said. “The impact broke the canopy directly over me, causing chunks of Plexiglas to fall into the cockpit.”
While his No. 2 confirmed the bird strike, he slowed the aircraft down to be able to hear her radio equipment.
“I made a call to the control tower to declare an emergency, and told them I’d be landing immediately,” Carrillo noted.
Upon landing the aircraft after a bird strike, pilots are met by maintenance teams, the fire department and safety officers to ensure the health and welfare of the pilot and aircraft.
At JBSA-Randolph, doves, raptors, perching birds, waterfowl and migratory birds are the most common threats to pilots. The Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard, or BASH, Management program was created as a direct response to the bird-strike issue on U.S. Air Force bases.
The BASH program ensures mission readiness and combat capability while providing the safest flying environment possible. The program is designed to reduce risk to aircrews, aircraft and the surrounding community.
Mitigation tools such as habitat/vegetation management, bird cannons, radars and herbicides/insecticides are all continuously implemented by BASH at JBSA to mitigate bird strike accidents and protect military members.
“One BASH measure we use at JBSA-Randolph is minimizing the amount of time we spend in close formation (fingertip) in the traffic pattern,” Carrillo said. “This allows more time for pilots to look for threats from birds.”
Because of these efforts, bird strikes are down 11 percent at JBSA-Randolph since 2018.
“BASH is important because it provides a reduction to the risks that are present to aircraft and pilots when operating in an environment of high bird concentrations, especially during critical phases of flight such as takeoff and landing.” Kent added.
Even with the pilots’ training for this, one bird strike can possibly alter a pilot’s mindset toward flying from then on out.
“It has made me thankful for the time and energy put into training for emergency situations because you have to be prepared every time you fly to potentially deal with something unexpected,” Kent said. “It also reminded me that flying is a dangerous business, regardless of whether you are just starting or if you have been flying for more than20 years.”
For additional information on BASH initiatives, contact the 12th Flying Training Wing safety office at 210-652-2224.