Thursday, June 30, 2011

Airport Message to Critters: Planes Suck

Sometimes romance shouldn't be discussed in the cockpit, and sometimes its vital that it is. That was the case on Wednesday when diamondback terrapins looking for romance began crossing an active runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

A couple of eagle-eyed American Eagle pilots blew the whistle on the amorous reptiles. Their call to the airport tower caused the temporary closing of the runway to relocate the critters on a mission to procreate. One of the pilots delayed by the closing can be heard on the radio frequency muttering, "Sufferin' succotash!" (So, so, mild, compared to what we've heard recently.)

John P.L. Kelly, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey told The New York Times, the turtles were crossing the runway to get to the other side because that's where they'd find an ideal place to "lay their eggs in the sand."

Photo courtesy Port Authority of NY and NJ
The turtle story is cute and has a happy ending. When it comes to wildlife interfering with flight operations, its not turtles but birds that are most likely to cause disaster.

Unlike bouts involving land critters, airplane versus bird encounters are usually at low-altitude. And the most dangerous time for this match is during takeoff, according to Richard Dolbeer, an ornithologist and aviation consultant who spoke to me after the successful Miracle on the Hudson landing of USAirways Flight 1549.

"On takeoff you’re trying to gain altitude and you’ve got critical decisions to make in terms of turning around and lining up on the runway. This is why bird strikes on takeoff are more likely to cause significant failures on the aircraft but also they’re more difficult for a pilot to manage,"  Richard said.

Try and imagine for example what it was like to be Roger Wutkl who was flying solo over Arizona when a bird crashed through the windscreen of his airplane, knocking his headset and glasses off and making a disgusting mess of the cockpit in November of 2009.

That was a busy month for bird strikes. From India to Brazil, Venezuela to Kenya airplanes were returning to airports in a hurry after flying into birds. (International Birdstrike Committee keeps a comprehensive list of events and a covey of related information on its website.)

Earlier this week Jim Hall, former chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board wrote an opinion piece for the Times expressing alarm over the location of garbage transfer station very near New York's LaGuardia Airport. One does not need to be an expert in aviation or wildlife to know that some very big birds are attracted to garbage and this is going to cause problems at the airport.

I mentioned Jim's article while having dinner with Andy Lester, manager of New Zealand's Christchurch International Airport on Wednesday night which prompted Andy to invite me to see how his airport is minimizing bird hazards by planting bird and bug repellant grass in some of the fields adjacent to the runway.

Ford Robertson and endophyte grass at Christchurch airport
As I understand it, in a process developed by a Kiwi agricultural scientist working in cooperation with the airport, an endophyte fungus is introduced to a certain kind of grass called fescue and the end product is given the catchy name Grasslanz Technology.

It may look like grass but birds don't like it and neither, apparently do bugs, making fields of the stuff unlikely to attract bug eaters. This is the first full year of a large field test and Andy and Ford Robertson, manager of quality and security are monitoring it closely.

This afternoon, while Ford drove me around the perimeter of the airfield and I snapped photos, we saw several large magpies and some smaller birds on or near the airport but the Grasslanz test field was bird-free.  

Magpies hangin' at the airport
Christchurch airport officials are encouraged by their biological fix and consider themselves leaders in the development of an agricultural solution to an aviation issue.

Its not a silver bullet its not even romantic but it is a creative approach and one worth keeping an eye on, even an eagle-eye, for how it might be more widely applied in the future.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Christine,

Rather than linking every proper noun to a generic site, how about linking to the actual source article at the NYTimes? Try not to link to things that aren't directly relevant to the topic of the post. (I don't really need to visit the Port Authority's website unless you're linking to a press release about the incident).

Christine Negroni said...

I'm never really sure how much or how little to reference. So you think I should put fewer links eh? I'll give that a try. The link to Hall's op-ed IS there, where it mentions his opinion piece. Thanks for the advice.