SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Sheppard AFB will conduct a joint operation with the USDA Nov. 14-18, 2022, in an attempt to mitigate one of the biggest threats to its flying training mission: birds.
Thousands of blackbirds that live in the area traverse up to 15 miles to reach their feeding sites daily. In doing this, they pose a great danger to the men and women training to become combat aviators. The grackle’s flight paths often go through or closely around the runways shared between the 80th Flying Training Wing and the Wichita Falls Regional Airport.
Ted Pepps, a USDA wildlife biologist, said the wing experiences an average of 52 bird strikes a year, threatening lives and costing the military millions of dollars in taxpayer money. The seriousness of these incidents range from a simple cleaning to a total loss of the aircraft. Sheppard and other bases have previously suffered fatalities in addition to equipment losses.
In 2013, a bird was sucked into the engine of a T-38C Talon advanced trainer jet, forcing the two pilots to safely eject. However, the size of the bird, location of the hit, and speed of the plane makes it difficult to accurately estimate the extent of damages until it is too late.
In an effort to eliminate these strikes, Sheppard AFB will employ measures used in its Bird Animal Aircraft Strike Hazard program, or BASH, which is under the supervision of Pepps and students awaiting pilot training. The team will use clappers, pyrotechnics, propane cannons, and other noise makers to drive the grackle population around the area to a newer, safer roosting location which is less likely to impact the flying mission.
Pepps said their mitigation measures will happen during the last two hours of daylight for at least the week of Nov. 14-18 in the area around the intersection of Central Freeway and U.S. Highway 287. The birds are easily seen in areas such as the Central Freeway Walmart’s parking lot.
While it’s hard to trace exactly how much of the 20,000-member grackle population has moved after encouraging them to roost elsewhere, results are expected to be seen after about three days of commencing the operation, with full effects realized after four to five days. The success of the program will be measured by whether birds continue to fly over the airfield in the coming weeks. The birds will be tracked during disposal for where they go next.
Previous BASH efforts to decrease various bird populations include habitat alteration such as draining standing water, monitoring grass types and lengths to keep wildlife out; direct control operations through harassment; use of anti-bird infrastructure such as spikes on displays and signs; and even changing flights to avoid peak grackle travel times. According to Pepps, habitat alteration is considered the best option, but it is difficult to secure long-term funding necessary to successfully complete the process.
The 80th FTW rarely allows its students to fly within the first hour of daylight to minimize collision chances, as that is when the grackle population leaves their roosts for the day. This only further squeezes the busy flying training wing, which executes about 300 flights between the installation’s four runways shared with the local airport every day.