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BASH program decreases bird strikes, makes air space safer for pilots

| Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Public Affairs | July 20, 2016

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas — Sporting a neon yellow safety vest with a 12th Flying Training Wing Safety patch Velcro-ed to the front, Maj. Jason Powell, 12th FTW chief of flight safety, bends down to pick up a white-winged dove off of the ground at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

The dove fits easily in the palm of his left hand. Propped across his body is the air pellet rifle Powell used to take down the bird.

To some, the dove may seem harmless, but Powell knows a bird as small as 4 ounces can cause engine failure for aircraft on impact, and his action can protect pilots from these small, powerful threats, while saving the Air Force thousands of dollars in aircraft repairs.

Powell’s efforts are a part of a program called BASH, or Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program, which was created to decrease the number of bird strikes to aircraft that occur at JBSA-Randolph. The program’s main mission is to prevent strikes by using various forms of depredation and harassment, as well as changing the bird’s habitat to create a safer environment for flight operations.

“Randolph is unique in the sense that we have parallel runways with a large concentration of habitat in between,” Maj. Will Rose, 12th FTW BASH program manager and T-6A Texan II flight safety officer, said. “We’ve made a concerted effort to make a change, and that’s our bird dispersal team.”

The bird dispersal team consists of about 30 members and performs bird harassment near the flight line using pyrotechnics, also called bangers, screamers and cracker shells. The pyrotechnics, fired using a shotgun or pistol, create a loud noise to startle the birds and push them to fly away from the runways.

Vivian Prothro, U.S. Department of Agriculture staff wildlife biologist, works with the bird dispersal team and provides knowledge and expertise on current bird harassment techniques.

“Research is constantly going on in how we can come up with better ways to keep pilots and planes safe and lower the chances of bird aircraft strike,” Prothro said. “The most effective tool that I find out here is the louder the noise it makes, the more effective it is.”

Along with Rose and Powell, there are about 10 members from the bird dispersal team who work on a bird depredation team. These members go out in pairs, with one person serving as a spotter, while the other shoots using an air pellet rifle or a paintball gun.

“We don’t want to go out there and kill the birds,” Powell said. “It’s the least effective way of doing business. You do have to use the lethal [methods] in order to still have effectiveness with the paintball guns. If you’re shooting at them, and it’s just splattering and nothing is ever happening to the birds, they’re going to figure it out eventually.”

Because JBSA-Randolph is in the Central Flyway for North America for all migratory birds, it is home to a wide array of birds, including vultures, raptors, red-tailed hawks, mourning doves, white-winged doves, scissor-tailed flycatchers and killdeers. However, the white-winged dove is the most common because they roost, or live, in the trees in base housing, Rose said.

Rose said a top concern is the flight path doves take, which starts at the center of base housing and goes over the east flight line where it crosses the T-38C Talon and T-1A Jayhawk flight paths.

“Our efforts are to try and change their flight path, and that’s why we use pyrotechnics and noise makers, so they go farther south before they cross,” Rose said.

Another concern is when there is higher bird traffic, it can affect flight operations, Rose said.

“A lot of times they can’t do the patterns they want to do,” Rose said. “We limit their formations at take-off, which they’d like to do a lot more of, but because of the concentration of birds, we put ‘bird moderate’ as a condition or status.”

To determine the ‘bird moderate’ status, a bird radar is utilized, which transmits bird activity within four miles of the base. Pilots can also report activity.

Due to the efforts of the BASH program, bird strikes have lowered by nearly 55 percent since last year. In June 2015, there were 22 recorded bird strikes, while in June of this year there were only 10, which has become the monthly average, Rose said.

Not only has the BASH program’s efforts created safer operations for aircraft by reducing bird strikes, it has decreased the Air Force’s cost in aircraft repairs due to strikes.

“So far this year we’ve only had one damaging strike, and the estimated cost is $125,000,” Rose said. “For fiscal year 2015, the total cost was $1.1 million in damage over a period of 17 strikes. So this year we’re more than halfway through the fiscal year, and we’re significantly lower.”

Lt. Col. Emil Bliss, 12th FTW community initiatives director, said he sees potential for the program to grow through collaboration with the local communities surrounding JBSA-Randolph.

“Since birds don't understand municipal boundaries, we know lasting solutions will only be found in the strong cooperation we have with the surrounding communities,” Bliss said.

The biggest way to combat the bird problem on base is by managing their habitat, and base residents can contribute to these efforts, Rose said.

“Don’t feed the birds. Don’t leave standing water, and keep their shelter – trees and bushes – maintained,” Rose said.

Another way BASH manages habitat is by maintaining Air Force standards for the height of grass in the infield, which is seven to 14 inches, and by utilizing the Air Force Civil Engineering Center to identify the types of insects and plants birds eat.

“It’s a total environmental change, and that reduces our bird risk by simply changing a plant in the infield along the runway,” Powell said. “It’s a habitat modification.”

The bird dispersal team is open to any general schedule or military member volunteers who want to “go out there and help the cause,” Rose said.

The team goes out every morning, starting at 7:30 a.m., for about three hours. Personnel interested in volunteering can contact the 12th FTW Safety office at 652-2224.

“That’s what we’re here for, to protect the airplanes and the pilots,” Prothro said.