By Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker, 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air NAtional Guard
/ Published May 22, 2017
SWANTON, Ohio -- Wildlife-related incidents were documented as the leading cause of F-16 fighter jet mishaps in the first quarter of 2017.
In an effort to mitigate impact to the mission and maximize the safety of pilots, aircraft and the abundant local-area wildlife, the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, hosted a Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard team visit, April 13, 2017, to assess potential bird and other wildlife hazards located on and around the airfield at Toledo Express Airport in Swanton, Ohio.
The BASH team visiting the 180FW, made up of two environmental consultants and a local representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, met with members of the wing’s safety, operations and airfield offices, and a representative from the Toledo Lucas County Port Authority, to discuss the unique challenges and concerns of having an airfield located near protected wetland and nature preserve areas.
The team provides multiple qualified airport wildlife biologists, commercial service and military wildlife hazard management experience, avian radar expertise and a National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, training accident investigator.
The goal of the ANG BASH teams are to preserve the war fighting capabilities through the reduction of wildlife hazards to military aircraft operations, according to the Air Force Safety Center.
Throughout the visit, the team conducted in-depth ground and aerial surveys of the airfield to identify potential wildlife living within the airfield, habitats, migration patterns and attractants such as tall vegetation that offer shelter, water and food sources for wildlife. The team also surveyed a five mile radius surrounding the airfield, annotating any wildlife that could potentially impact aircraft approach and departure corridors.
“Our ‘First Look’ is to determine if the current BASH Plan reflects the roles, responsibilities and the procedures outlined in the plan,” said Sarah Brammell, Southwest Florida regional director for Environmental Resource Solutions and BASH team leader. “We are interested in the current relationship between the ANG unit and the civilian airport, along with any other partnering entities such as the USDA Wildlife Services.”
The Toledo Lucas County Port Authority currently partners with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, or APHIS, during peak migration seasons, which provides consultation and management assistance to assess wildlife conflicts at the airport to improve safety by reducing hazards and risks associated with wildlife to ensure protection of Northwest Ohio’s wildlife populations and valuable environmental resources.
Following an in-depth review of the wing’s BASH plan and the roles assigned to each participating organization, the team conducted a detailed site observation of the airfield and the perimeter fence line. After surveying the airport property, the team evaluated potential off-site wildlife attractants surrounding the airfield before comparing notes with previous site visit findings.
The BASH team identified many avian species posing hazards including, Canada Geese, Great Blue Herons, Hawks, Blackbirds, Wild Turkey and several other species of lark and songbirds. The majority of bird strikes, 97 percent, occur below an altitude of 5,000 feet.
According to APHIS studies, Ohio has the highest breeding season population of blackbirds and starlings of any state or province, and marshes along Lake Erie are traditional late-summer congregating places for these birds. A major proportion of the continental population of ring-billed gulls, a species that along with herring gulls is often involved in safety hazards at airports, concentrates along the south shore of Lake Erie in spring and fall. Large concentrations of fish-eating birds such as double-crested cormorants also congregate on Lake Erie during migration.
“Some of the issues we deal with at Toledo Express include coyotes regularly accessing the airfield,” said Caleb Wellman, wildlife biologist assigned to the USDS APHIS program. The local wetlands and extensive vegetated ditches on and adjacent to the airfield contribute to attracting various species of waterfowl and wetland birds that are posing significant hazards to aircraft and human safety.”
The unique wetland environment on and surrounding the 180FW and Toledo Express Airport provide inviting habitats and feeding grounds for wildlife, highlighting several areas of concern that potentially increase bird and wildlife hazards such as standing water in and around the airfield, drainage ditch vegetation throughout the airport grounds and the abundance of farm fields surrounding the airfield.
“It is evident that there is a good working relationship between the Toledo Lucas County Port Authority and the 180FW,” said Brammell. “They are working together to reduce or remove wetland areas on the airfield that pose significant wildlife hazard attractants. The 180FW is actively engaged in providing support to the Port Authority and is assisting in the risk reduction of wildlife strikes on the airfield.”
While the risks remains significant due to the wetland environment around the airfield, maintaining good habitat management practices can make an airport less attractive to birds. Eliminating standing water, removing or thinning trees, removing brush and managing grass height can reduce or eliminate roosting or nesting sites, in turn, lowering the risk of injury or death to area wildlife.
These simple recommendations were made by the BASH team in an effort to reduce the hazards presented by local wildlife. These recommendations include, maintaining manicured drainage ditches by keeping them free of vegetation and ensuring grass areas throughout the airfield remain between seven and 14 inches in an effort to deter nesting and flocking of birds.
“The 180FW flies the F-16 and this single engine fighter has a long history of serious bird strike damage and loss due to bird and other wildlife strikes,” said Brammell. “Low-level flight operations place this aircraft at altitudes where many bird species move on a daily basis. When birds are struck at high aircraft speeds, even from a small mass, it can seriously damage an aircraft and destroy any component that is struck.”
While only 30 percent of the ANG’s 46 first quarter mishaps were wildlife related, 50 percent of those mishaps directly impacted the fighter fleet and 80 percent of those were F-16 mishaps, claiming four out of the five documented mishaps in the first quarter.
“All wildlife hazards, or environments that promote wildlife hazards, are detrimental to flying missions, whether that is a military mission or normal commercial air traffic,” said Senior Master Sgt. Joe Carter, 180FW safety superintendent. “We must always remember what the dangers are and we must do what we can to reduce the chances of a wildlife strike.
“The integrated approach of the BASH program brings together all of the installation stakeholders who work together to reduce the strike potential while maintaining a mission-ready fleet,” said Brammell.