Fledgling Fliers Fighting Feathered Foes

Air Force Academy cadets are exploring how to reduce dangerous bird-aircraft collisions

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Cadet Carson Fugal, at a flight simulator, discusses bird-strike reduction effort with Cadet Blake Abrecht.

Bird strikes have bedeviled aviation for more than a century. All kinds of grizzled experts have failed to eliminate the dangers posed to pilots and passengers (not to mention the avian creatures involved) when birds and aircraft collide in mid-air.

So perhaps it’s time to let youngsters—specifically, 20-something cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.—give it a try.

In a nutshell, they’re exploring the notion of mounting sophisticated noise-making devices and flashing lights on aircraft to scare birds away. They’re taking a lesson from the old-timers, who have long placed noise-making guns near airports to keep birds at bay. But the cadets are looking to come up with the best combined audio-and-light system—perhaps a simple tone, or an ultrasonic pulse inaudible to humans, along with flashing lights—that would keep birds at far greater distances.

Birds, like many humans, prefer to avoid—rather than confront —something they perceive as dangerous. “If we can make aircraft a recognizable threat to birds, they will want to distance themselves from the danger,” says Cadet First Class (a senior, in civilian-speak) Carson Fugal of Park City, Utah. “We just need to figure out how to display aircraft as threats to birds in an aerodynamically and financially-feasible way.”

Bird-aircraft strikes are a growing problem, with the skies filling with more of each. Pilots also are more aware of the danger, contributing to increased counts of bird strikes. Such reported civil-aircraft collisions in the U.S. jumped from 1,748 in 1990 to 9,730 in 2011—a 450% increase—according to a 2012 report by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Agriculture. In 1990, the strikes resulted in damage to less than one of every 100,000 commercial flights. By 2011, the rate had jumped to 1.36. That’s a 50% hike.

The Air Force has long had a program to reduce collisions between its planes and the sky’s original inhabitants: BASH, which is short for the Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program. Midair collisions between birds and Air Force aircraft have destroyed 15 planes and killed 33 airmen since 1973. Bird strikes have been a problem for aircraft since Calbraith Rodgers’ Model EX Wright Pusher flew into a Larus californicus off the California coast in 1912, dooming all three.

Under the wing of the academy’s Aeronautics Research Center, eight cadets, building on research done by a similar group last year, are trying to find the right balance of sound and light to keep birds at bay without distracting nearby pilots. While speakers are used on some helicopters, their sound is less effective on faster fixed-wing planes. The cadets are trying to pinpoint the optimum kind of sound for the faster speeds, and pair it with flashing lights for additional deterrence. “With this combination of a safe and effective system, our team believes that it has the potential to reduce airborne bird strikes, ultimately saving money and lives,” says Cadet First Class Blake Abrecht of Farmington, Ark.

“Deterring birds from coming into the flight path of an aircraft without causing any harm to the birds is the project’s goal,” says Air Force Captain Jeff Newcamp, the cadets’ adviser. Their plan, he says, is to develop data showing the costs and benefits of adding such gear to aircraft, and sharing their findings with the military and airlines.

Beyond trying to make future flying safer, the cadets are also inspired by the academy’s past. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, who successfully landed that Airbus on the Hudson River in 2009 following a bird strike, saving all 155 souls aboard, is a member of the class of 1973. Captain Glenn “Skip” Rogers also attended the academy, graduating in 1990. He was the pilot of an E-3 AWACS plane that crashed 42 seconds after takeoff in Alaska in 1995, killing all 24 aboard, after colliding with a flock of geese. “We’re goin’ in,” was Rogers’ last radio call. “We’re going down.”

He is buried in the Air Force Academy cemetery, not far from where current cadets are working to make such crashes a part of aviation history.