TAMPA — Mostly desolate, uninhabited acres of grass and deep-sided ditches flank the sides of Tampa International Airport’s take-off and landing strips.
There are no lush wetlands or manicured flower beds alongside the tarmac for airline passengers to enjoy. Just an occasional lunching armadillo or wayward great blue heron or cattle egret trekking through the bare fields looking for bugs.
There is a reason for that. Birds and airplanes are not compatible.
Bird strikes and other wildlife strikes to aircraft cause over $900 million in damage to U.S. civil and military aviation each year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Over 250 people have been killed worldwide as a result of wildlife strikes since 1988.
Think “Miracle on the Hudson,” when in 2009 now-famous US Airways pilot Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger seamlessly ditched his Airbus 320 in the Hudson River with 155 passengers on board after two Canada geese were ingested into both engines of the aircraft. In that case, Sullenberger’s expertise likely saved lives. All passengers made it through the ordeal.
But the statistics show that isn’t always the case. There is no way to clear an air path for airplanes flying through the skies, but there are proven and required methods airports use to keep take-off and landing strips clear.
When it comes to runways, bleaker is better, said Jordan Biegler, operations manager in charge of wildlife management for Tampa International.
“With natural landscape comes nature,” Biegler said. “We have to be real careful about how we landscape.”
Some airports, like Southwest Florida International in Fort Myers, use dogs as a way to scare birds away from the tarmac. But dogs can be hard to manage on nearly 100 acres of runway space, Biegler said. Tampa International takes a more blaring approach — lights and sirens and the occasional loud bang from cracker shells fired out of a shotgun.
Occasionally, incidents do occur, but Tampa International has a good record of avoidance. In the past 10 years, the airport has reported 273 bird strikes on planes, said airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps. Of those, 16 caused minor damage and eight caused substantial damage to the planes. The rest did not result in any damage.
The birds that struck the planes range from gulls to American kestrels, Swainson’s thrush to pelicans and hawks. A majority of the strike reports list the culprits as “unknown small” or “unknown medium” birds.
The latest incident occurred June 19, but it was 4 miles north of the airport. A Southwest flight departing for Houston had to return to Tampa International for repairs after its left wing struck a white pelican. Part of the metal on the wing peeled off. That is an example of “substantial damage,” Nipps said.
Back in 2008, a year when Tampa International reported 31 incidents, a Southwest plane hit a large bird on the runway and the pilot aborted takeoff when the crew smelled burning flesh in the cabin and needed to check for engine damage.
“Whenever there is an incident, we try to change whatever might have attracted the birds,” Biegler said. “We look at what is being attracted and why. We try to exclude wildlife with fencing, and we use spikes on perching areas,” and crews construct steep banks alongside the ditches. “Obviously, we’re focused on the safety of the airplanes.”
The bigger the birds, the more likely it is for them to cause major damage should a strike occur. According to the FAA, gulls, waterfowl, raptors and deer are the most hazardous wildlife to airport operations.
Birds were involved in 97 percent of aircraft strikes in the United States between 1990 and 2013, when incidents increased six-fold from 1,851 strikes in 1990 to 11,315 in 2013. Increasing populations of large birds and more, quieter turbofan-powered aircraft have been contributing factors, according to the FAA.
Airport staffs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture conduct annual assessments of how the wildlife management program works for each airport. Staff also train each year, Biegler said.
“You can’t remove all the trees or save everything,” he said. The best a team can do is evaluate the threats and be as proactive as possible to avoid incidents.