By Christopher Tobutt
Dangerous collisions between aircraft and birds have been known about for as long as aviation itself. We have heard about flocks of birds getting sucked into jet engine intakes, for example, and occasional high-profile cases such as the crash of Flight 1549 where a commercial aircraft crashed into the Hudson River in 2009 after hitting a flock of geese makes the public more aware of the issue, but really those kind of events are really just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of minor incidents, most causing no damage to aircraft, result in precautionary turn backs, engine checks, delays, cancellations and minor repairs add up to a lot of serious expense and nuisance, as well as danger.
At Owen Roberts International Airport, they take wildlife to be a serious hazard, and key people such as Andrew McLaughlin, Chief Safety Officer with the Cayman Islands Airports Authority, and representatives from Cayman Airways, Animal Welfare officers from the Agricultural Department, and from the Department of Environment and others get together for the annual Wildlife Hazard Management meeting, in order to explore ways of minimizing the threat.
Around the world, 90% of wildlife strikes happen on or close to airports, so the main thrust of strike prevention involves keeping hazardous wildlife off of airport property and out of the approach and departure corridors. If wildlife is on or near an airport it’s there for a reason, usually food or safety.
The simplest, most effective, and permanent way to control the wildlife strike risk is to remove whatever it is that is attracting the creatures concerned, and this has been the main thrust of the CIAA’s strategy. In tandem with the airports extensive new improvements to the building, and the runway, they have removed or filled in many little ponds and lakes that used to attract so many birds, especially herons and other wading birds. Mr. McLaughlin explained that, despite remaining vigilant several external factors have been working in their favor. These include that capping of the landfill, which used to be a meeting-place for many birds in the early mornings, before they flew down to the ponds later in the day, combined with removal of all the man-made ponds and lakes, has meant that many of the birds have stopped congregating near the airport altogether. Since the big green iguana cull began, green iguanas which used to frequent the runway and regularly delay flights, have all but disappeared. Land crabs too haven’t been an issue really, over the past year, Mr. McLaughlin said, putting it down to the fact that many of their holes have been filled in because of the ongoing development.
Chickens remain a problem, though, and Mr. McLaughlin encouraged everyone to desist from feeding them in the vicinity of the airport. Various methods are employed such as bird-scarers and ‘flash-bangs’ which make a loud bang and a flash, but the problem is that sooner rather than later, many of the birds wise up and get used to the scarers, and all the animals get acclimatized to whatever is used to scare them away, so the best strategy is to continually change out one method for another.
Pointing to a big bird-scaring cannon on a table, Mr. McLaughlin said, “These are great. But birds habituate very quickly, especially the cattle egrets. Once I was holding one of those cannons in my hand and it went off so near to it that all the feathers of his head blew back, and he just turned around, like: ‘You got nothing better to do today?’”