386th Air Expeditionary Wing Safety office and United States Department of Agriculture collaborate to keep flight line safe

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Natalie Filzen
  • 386 AEW Public Affairs

There’s a classic philosophical argument that describes the following scenario: a trolley is approaching a roadblock that will jeopardize every passenger, or you can pull a lever to divert it to another track that will only endanger one person. Essentially, it is a life taken for multiple lives saved.

This is a decision that the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Safety office has to adhere to every day when they have to remove wildlife from the flight line. While some animals are caught and released, those that are more difficult to catch - such as birds - are often surrendered for a greater cause. Optimally, the goal is to mitigate the hazards before having to respond to them.

There are common mantras that most people live by to stay safe. Within the three disciplines under wing safety, there’s at least one common phrase that the general public is already familiar with. For weapons safety–most know to always treat a gun as if it is loaded. For ground safety–look both ways before crossing the street. However, most of us do not regularly practice flight safety, unless we work in that field.

Flight safety ensures the runways are clear of any living hazards that could hit an aircraft during takeoff or landing. These practices are used for most civil or military airports around the world.

“All these aircraft are flying in support of the air tasking order that the U.S. Central Command executes daily,” said Capt. Jeremy Sarno, a C-130 Hercules pilot with the 386th AEW Safety office. “By preventing bird strikes, we mitigate the threat and financial burden of broken aircraft, time lost executing the mission, and most importantly, keeping aircrew and passengers safe.”

Certain areas of the airfield are particularly sensitive to wildlife, such as runway centerlines, where airplanes land and takeoff, as it endangers the crew when wildlife impacts aircraft, forcing the crew to make an emergency landing.

While flight safety has the capability to trap and depredate hazardous animals, managing bird and wildlife populations on base can be a hefty undertaking. This is why some bases have an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist under the Bird/wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program.

“The USDA are hired as subject matter experts on wildlife population and habitat management,” said Sarno. “They are not only the lead for airfield depredation and trapping efforts, but they also advise us on ways to make the habitat less hospitable utilizing methods such as vegetation removal or food/water source elimination. This is especially important in areas locally defined as a zone of zero tolerance which include the runways and their extended centerlines; areas where we really do not want birds flying.”

Kevin Barnes, wildlife specialist with the USDA, stresses how his field is ever-changing and that he is constantly training to be proficient at what he does.

Barnes, who deployed from Dover Air Force Base, has worked for the Army Corps of Engineers, was a prior SEAL team member for the U.S. Navy, and also owned a tree care business for 27 years. Barnes' son is a C-17 Globemaster III pilot with the West Virginia National Guard, so it is especially important for him to protect the lives at risk against the threat of birds being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I’ve had to go out at zero o'clock in the morning because [aircraft] were coming in and they spotted an animal,” said Barnes. “So I used pyrotechnics to disperse that animal and get it away from the airfield.”

Aside from collaborating with the USDA, the safety office also provides essential data to the Smithsonian Institution.

“When an airplane takes off and hits a bird, it's often required that [the aircrew], land immediately and get it checked out by maintenance, especially if they suspect damage,” said Sarno. “If not maintenance, one of us will collect the remains. It's usually just a smear on the side of the plane that we alcohol swab, put in a plastic bag and send to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian will take the DNA and identify the bird for trending purposes.”

Kuwait is a confluence of multiple migratory patterns, and Barnes adds that it is also a popular Kuwaiti pastime for locals to raise, release, and track pigeons, via bands placed on their legs. Sometimes they will host competitions to see how far their tagged birds will fly. Unfortunately, even banded birds are no exemption from removal from the flight line should they venture out there.

“USDA practices integrated wildlife damage management, using every tool in the tool box to protect the mission,” said Jenny Washburn, staff wildlife biologist with USDA’s Wildlife Services Airport Wildlife Hazards Program. “Lethal management is the last tool to be used, but is used to reinforce harassment efforts.”

Under the current agreement with the USDA, Ali Al Salem Air Base has experienced the least amount of wildlife strikes observed in five years.