WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2017 - The danger posed by wildlife to aircraft captured the public’s attention – and imagination – when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was forced to land his Airbus 320 in the Hudson River after Canada geese were sucked into both engines.
That incident seven years ago was perhaps the most dramatic wildlife strike ever, but it was just one of thousands reported over the years. The number of strikes reported annually to the Federal Aviation Administration has increased more than seven-fold, from 1,847 in 1990 to a record 13,795 in 2015. And worldwide, FAA reports, wildlife strikes have destroyed over 247 aircraft since 1988, killing more than 262 people.
The annual cost of wildlife strikes to the U.S. domestic civil aviation industry in 2015 was estimated at $229 million in direct and other monetary losses and nearly 70,000 hours of aircraft downtime, FAA’s annual strike report said, adding, “Actual losses are likely much higher.”
The Wildlife Services National Research Center of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is trying to do something about that.
In a demonstration project at six airports, APHIS is planting switchgrass on land that usually would have been covered in turf grasses and weeds. The idea is to eliminate habitat attractive to high-hazard species such as the aforementioned Canada geese, deer and other animals known to damage aircraft in the air or on the ground.
Another possible benefit, though probably far down the road, is the use of switchgrass as a biofuel feedstock, but as an Economic Research Service report noted recently, “markets do not presently exist for large-scale use of this resource.”
“The bottom line is, we’re looking for alternative land uses,” said Jeff Pelc, a Wildlife Services biologist with APHIS in Columbus, Ohio. Pelc notes that airports own a lot of vacant land: One estimate puts the total amount of grasslands on airfields at 1,274 square miles, larger than the state of Rhode Island.
In addition, many airports lease portions of their land for agricultural production, according to a 2012 paper examining the potential for alternative energy production at airports. “These crops often include corn and wheat, which are known wildlife attractants,” the paper says, while switchgrass is not.
The project started in 2014 and is scheduled to run through 2018. Participating facilities include three commercial airfields – Dayton International Airport, Detroit Metro Airport, and Gerald R. Ford International Airport near Grand Rapids, Michigan. Military airfields involved are Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Columbus Air Force Base in northeastern Mississippi, and Naval Air Station Whiting Field near Pensacola, Florida.
So far, progress has been checkered, hampered at times by wet weather and saturated soils. In 2015, the first year for which data are available, switchgrass emerged at three of the airports – Dayton, Gerald R. Ford and Wright-Patterson, while Columbus Air Force Base and Naval Air Station Whiting Field experienced crop failure. Switchgrass could not be planted at the Detroit airport until 2016 because of saturated soils.
Last year, the situation in Detroit improved. “In my viewpoint, it looks like (the switchgrass) came in pretty good,” said Matt Lafleur, senior airfield operations manager for the Wayne County Airport Authority, which runs the Detroit airport.
Lafleur said the airport was interested in the project because “we were looking for opportunities to lower costs and reduce attractants around the airport.” Grass and weeds, which may cover as much as a third of the 6,000-acre facility, attract wildlife that can be hazardous to aircraft, including European starlings, seagulls, blackbirds and Canada geese.
Detroit has been fortunate in that the last couple of years, “We haven’t had any damaging strikes,” Lafleur said.
Demonstration project manager Ray Iglay, an assistant research professor at Mississippi State’s Center for Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts, is optimistic about the project despite some hiccups involving the weather. At the southern sites, “Failure of the crops is making it kind of interesting,” he said. However, “As we go from year to year, we should see switchgrass (coverage) increasing,” he said.
Preliminary data show that more “very low-hazard” bird species were detected in switchgrass monoculture plots at Columbus Air Force Base, and more “low hazard” bird species were seen in switchgrass monocultures at the Gerald Ford International Airport, according to a summary of the project’s progress shared by Iglay.