City Airport uses derring-do tactics to stop high-flying birds hitting planes
PUBLISHED: 17:16 25 September 2015 | UPDATED: 17:16 25 September 2015
Work to prevent bird-strikes involving planes at City Airport has seen staff using increasingly innovative ways to keep our feathered friends away from the runways. Investigations journalist EMMA YOULE reports
Given that 75,000 flights a year take place at City Airport, it is extremely rare for planes to come into contact with birds - known as bird-strikes.
And when this happens, it is even more rare for it to cause a major problem as modern aeroplanes are built to withstand the force of hitting a bird.
However, large flocks can be dangerous to aircraft, especially if they are sucked into the engine.
Due to this risk, coupled with the fact that airlines do not want the deaths of birds on their hands, airport staff are constantly looking at ways to monitor wildlife and stop birds from becoming a potential danger.
Some of the tactics employed at City Airport to make its 25 hectares of airfield in Newham’s Royal Docks safe include bird scaring devices, growing long grass and firing pyrotechnics.
“We have a dedicated bird control unit and their priority function is to achieve a bird-free aerodrome,” explains Kevin Wincell, 34, airfield operations manager at City Airport.
“We have various methods of dispersal starting with the least invasive, such as clapping or waving arms. We move up to using what’s known as a lure, it looks like a bird on the end of a string, and you swing that around to replicate a predator.
“It can even come down to the use of something like a black stick that may look like a firearm and birds think that’s something potentially harmful.”
Fake predators, such as phony owls or scarecrows, are not effective as the birds quickly realise they are not a threat. But growing long grass, which is less attractive to most bird species, and removing weeds that attract insects birds like to feed on are effective deterrents.
The team also plays acoustic distress calls using hand-held or vehicle-mounted devices in a bid to trick birds into investigating the danger so they can scatter the flock.
Occasionally signal pistols or bird-scaring rockets are even used.
“Pyrotechnics can be useful,” said Mr Wincell. “The benefit of these devices is we can get above the flock and birds fear predators from above.”
... and it’s not just birds
Airports are increasingly having to tackle another problem that could potentially affect pilots - laser interference.
Lasers are a serious threat to pilots as they can cause temporary blindness and eye damage.
They can also obscure a pilot’s vision, which is especially dangerous on approach to the runway.
Data from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) shows there were 224 reported occurrences of people deliberately pointing lasers at London City Airport from 2011 to 2014.
A spokesman from the CAA said: “It is something we and the police are very keen to tackle. It is a very dangerous thing to do.”
Shining a laser at an aircraft is a criminal offence and can fall under “endangering an aircraft in flight” which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
It is serious work as figures released following a Freedom of Information request to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) show an increase in bird-strike reports at City Airport in recent years.
In 2014 there were 100 reports of birds being hit by planes, up from 59 in 2011, 52 in 2012, and 57 in 2013.
The upward trend appears to continue this year, with figures from January to May showing 41 reports.
“One thing we’ve indentified is the weather has played a key part,” said Mr Wincell. “What we’re finding is that the changing weather patterns have caused more of an impact on the wildlife. Birds naturally seek food and shelter. When that’s not in abundance they often have to travel to different areas to seek it.”
Some of the birds-strikes recorded at City Airport include two kestrels, one skylark and a mute swan, although by far the most commonly affected species is the black headed gull.
The critical importance of deterring bird-strikes is shown by an incident in New York in 2009.
In January that year US Airways flight 1549 crash-landed on the Hudson River after a flock of Canada geese were sucked into both the plane’s engines.
Fortunately the pilot was able to make an emergency water landing and all passengers and crew were unharmed.
Pilots also have their part to play as birds are most likely to hit planes flying at under 2,000 feet.
Retired professional pilot Piers Applegarth, who flew the Airbus A318 in and out of City Airport, said: “Pilots fly with lights on till 10,000 feet and report to other aircraft if they see flocks or bird hazards so that following aircraft can delay take-off or landing till the birds have passed.
“There are also ways of making the aeroplane bird visible. Making sure the lights are on and flying at a speed that gives birds a chance to move out of the way and reduce bird damage if a collision occurs can help.”
Technology is one weapon in the armoury but habitat management is the key to keeping our feathered friends away from City Airport.
“Naturally we see birds flocking in and around the area in the summer months, it’s linked to food and shelter,” said Mr Wincell. “So it’s trying to address this and understand what’s happening during the different seasons.
“We’re always looking ahead and looking back and evaluating the risks.
“Ultimately what we want to employ here is the best habitat management and that’s absolutely key in preventing bird-strikes.”
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