On patrol with the Bird Control Unit
As you know, safety is a top priority at an airport. So what about the animals that live alongside the tarmac? A new and ambitious management plan is intended to reconcile Boeing and the C130 with nature. How do you keep a flock of seagulls out of jet engines? Spoorzoeker went out on patrol with the Bird Control Unit. The what?
Are there animals living in and around Brussels Airport? More than you would think. “One third of the airport land is green zone, that’s around 400 hectares”, says Tom Goris of The Brussels Airport Company. “An interesting habitat for animals, but a possible risk to safe air traffic. Safety at an airport means being alert around the clock. At the same time we want safe air traffic to be on the same track as respect for nature. If a flock of birds really poses an acute threat to a plane that is taking off or landing – when there’s a collision we call it a ‘bird strike’ or bird collision – we have no choice but to actively chase away or hunt the creatures. Indeed, the vast green zones round the airport are the favourite territory for a number of other types of animals. In order to disturb nature as little as possible we take as many preventive measures as possible.”
Permit for five years
Safety policy at an airport is not easy. The mountain of regulations, with the scores of reports and permits required and all the administration involved, is incalculable. That is why the airport took the initiative of drawing up a new management plan, with agreements and perspectives for the longer term. The Belgian nature protection agency, ANB, gave its advice and helped ensure that the plan is administratively and legally watertight, in accordance with the European directives and obligations. The result was that the management plan was approved and we got one all-inclusive permit for a period of five years - an end to all those different permits and reports.
Tom Goris: “We used to have to carry out scores of administrative duties every month. That is now past tense.”
That’s the plan then, now for the practice. That’s the Bird Control Unit’s job, a special service that is occupied almost exclusively with the animals at and around the airport, especially birds. We went out to investigate with two patrol cars.
“In 1984 there was one bird controller at the airport”, says coordinator Jan Geeraerts. “Now my team is seven strong. A lot has changed in nearly thirty years. There is much more air traffic and the jet engines are a bigger risk for animals than the propellers we had in those days. The territory and population level of the animals change constantly too. Thanks to the daily patrols, from before sunrise to after sunset, we have a clear picture of the animal population. We know how it is evolving and we know which animals are a threat to safe air traffic.”
Seagulls and pigeons
In the patrol car we can read the outside temperature. It is around freezing, but an icy east wind makes it feel much colder. After just a few minutes we see a pair of hares hop over the vast grassland. Jan Geeraerts keeps a close eye on any animal movement. An ingrained automatism. There are binoculars within hand’s reach. The patrol is in radio contact with its own department, the control tower and airport inspection.
They know the territory like the back of their hands. They know where they might find a flock of birds - always a risk factor. Today they have to bear in mind the fact that planes are taking off and landing in a different direction. The strong east wind made sure of that. In winter it is fairly quiet. Not so in other seasons. Warm summer weather attracts a lot of pigeons and in rainy weather the seagulls are a particular nuisance.
“A recent analysis confirmed that birds and animals at and around the airport site pose one of the greatest risks to the safety of air traffic in Belgium”, says Jan Geeraerts. “That is why The Brussels Airport Company must take every measure to prevent a collision between animals and airplanes. Hence the patrols, although they constitute less than a third of our job. We spend most of our time on habitat management. That means making the site as unattractive as possible for animals. We avoid excessive trees, bushes and long grass, where birds like to nest. Corn and wheat fields must be avoided in the vicinity of an airport too. During the harvest they act like a magnet for many types of birds. We put pins on the edges of buildings, aerials and anywhere else that might make an attractive roost or lookout for birds. Dead birds and other carrion are removed immediately because they might attract crows or other scavengers. Not only do we have to manage the facilities, we also have to look for new sustainable and environment-friendly ways to intervene.”
The banks we drive along have been completely dug out and look a lot like trenches. Everywhere we stop the ground has been churned up. Masts and aerials threaten to tip over as a result. “We can thank the hares and rabbits for that. We have to control them actively, but we can only do it with ferrets. Because there is a plague, we do everything we can to secure the fence around the airport. We try to make the huge grassy zones unattractive. We know that the length and type of grass can have a very discouraging effect. We plant strips to test what works best. Foxes, on the other hand, hide mainly in the sewers on the airport land, so we try to close them off as far as possible.”
Above our heads in the patrol car there’s a shotgun in a metal holder. Prevent, chase and, if there really is no alternative, hunt. That is the three-stage model the Bird Control Unit works with. We drive through the green zone parallel to the runway, beside a strip of grass that’s been sprayed dead. The tarmac, where a plane has just taken off, is less than a hundred metres away. “The acute danger zone that even we are not allowed into without explicit permission from the air traffic control tower. Animals can be actively hunted here, but even in this zone it is always the last option. If birds circle too close to the runway we fire noise blanks to chase them away. But animals get used to the bangs. Noise cannons are heavier artillery for driving them away. We can move them around and fire them from a distance”, says Jan Geeraerts.
Birds of prey
We stop at a trap for birds of prey. It is empty, but a few feathers left behind prove that is not always the case. “The large grassy areas attract birds of prey hunting for mice”, according to Geeraerts. “Every year we find fifteen or twenty in our cages. The bird shelter in Malderen comes and fetches them, rings them and releases them eighty kilometres from the airport. Far enough away to prevent them coming back.”
We stop at a water reservoir. Here and there black plastic balls lie in the grass. In the distance half of the water surface is black. “Those are bird balls. They are supposed to keep birds away from the water”, explains Geeraerts. “Unfortunately strong wind often blows some of them away. But I reckon there are still a million and a half of them floating round.”
We have been scouting the territory for nearly two hours. It is clear that the Bird Control Unit is very aware of its big responsibility. The team doesn’t take its eyes from the surroundings for a second during the entire patrol. These are people with a heart for animals.
The management plan drawn up by Brussels Airport and the ANB isn’t going to remain circling over the Brussels area. It is possible that other airports will adopt it soon too. After consultations between the ANB and the Directorate General for Air Traffic this was also discussed in the Belgian Aviation Wildlife Hazard Committee. The ANB then bundled all the possible permit options for an airport into one document. This was distributed to all the Belgian civilian airports and military bases represented on the committee. They are currently deciding whether they will stick to their approach or opt for the long-term approach favoured by Brussels Airport. A delegation from the Belgian committee regularly participates in meetings of the International Bird Strike Committee. There is obviously good news in the air for the airport fauna.
95,000 bird strikes
Although a bird’s weight is nothing compared to that of an airplane, bird strikes have had major consequences. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) counted 95,000 strikes with a total of 130 deaths between 1995 and 2004. Even if an accident ends well, the material consequences can be considerable. Repairs to a Concorde after a bird strike in 1995 cost 9 million dollars. In August 2000 a Boeing 747 had to dump 83,000 kilograms of fuel to avoid a crash.
Sometimes crews and passengers escape with just a fright. That happened in the summer of 2010 at Schiphol, when a Boeing from the Royal Air Maroc airline collided with a flock of Canadian geese. One engine was badly damaged and the plane lost a considerable amount of its climbing power. Eventually the plane was able to land safely; the passengers were unhurt. Everyone remembers the thrilling emergency landing on the Hudson River, when an American airbus collided with geese. The well-known accident with the Kalitta Boeing 747 that disintegrated at the end of the runway during take-off in May 2008 was entirely due to a collision with a kestrel. In military aviation bird strikes are a worry too. Take the fatal accident with a C130 from the Belgian Air Force in Eindhoven. From 2007 to 2011 the Ministry of Defence recorded 204 bird strikes over Belgium. Nine of them caused light to serious damage to the airplanes.
(Article written by Agentschap voor natuur en bos and published in their magazine “Spoorzoeker”)