November 13, 2011

Year of the hawk causes problems at jetport

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

PORTLAND -- The Cooper's hawk was not happy. The hapless juvenile had made the mistake of hunting for a meal near a general aviation runway at the Portland International Jetport. Now it was caged and flapping around in a trap, waiting for a federal wildlife biologist to set it free.

"This past year has been the year of the hawk," said Arthur Sewall, deputy airport director of operations. "I've been here 27 years, and I've never seen so many, mostly Cooper's and red-tailed."

Hawks and their feathered kin are unwelcome competition to the aircraft that fly in and out of the jetport every day. On Nov. 1, a United Continental Airlines regional jet that took off from Portland struck a flock of birds later identified as snow bunting. The plane was forced to return for an inspection -- which revealed no damage -- before it could continue on its flight.

Bird strikes rarely cause serious damage to commercial airline flights, but they are capable of bringing down an aircraft. That makes their elimination serious business at the nation's airports.

In 2009, a collision between a US Airways jet taking off from LaGuardia Airport and a flock of geese knocked out both engines. The pilot was able to land safely on the Hudson River, averting disaster.

"The New York incident brought bird strikes to the forefront worldwide," Sewall said.

Sewall and his staff try to keep birds and other wildlife away from the jetport. They do it by making the 636-acre airfield as unattractive and inaccessible to wildlife as possible, and by scaring away or trapping birds that insist on visiting. The most persistent critters, as a last resort, can be shot and killed.

Passengers rarely see this work or even know it's happening, but their safety could depend on it.

Since 1988, more than 219 people have been killed worldwide when birds struck aircraft. Domestic civilian flights reported more than 9,600 collisions with birds and other wildlife last year alone, causing millions of dollars in damage.

Bird strikes are as old as powered flight. The first incident was reported in 1905, by Orville Wright, after he flew over a cornfield near Dayton, Ohio, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Portland has recorded roughly 200 bird strikes since 1990. Nine have occurred so far this year, according to an FAA database. They included passenger, freight and business flights. Four involved gulls. No damage was reported.

The only recent bird strike in Portland to cause substantial damage occurred in 1995, when a US Airways 737 cracked its nose cone after hitting an eider duck. Two other flights, in 2002 and 2006, sustained unspecified moderate damage.

Commercial pilots say bird strikes can happen at nearly any altitude, but collisions are more common at lower altitudes, during takeoff and landing.

Rex Hopkins, a furloughed American Airlines pilot and former Bangor-based US Airways Express pilot, said instances of birds hitting commercial planes are relatively uncommon. He said modern airliners climb quickly to high altitudes, where birds are scarce, and most commercial airports have effective wildlife-control measures.

However, Hopkins, who now flies low-level mosquito-control flights in the Florida Keys and has hit several birds in recent years, said strikes can cause serious damage. A bird sucked into an engine intake can break hot, brittle metal components and cause engine failure. Hopkins has heard of birds crashing through aircraft windshields and landing in pilot's laps.

Dean Street, chief pilot at aviation service company Maine Aviation Corp. at the Portland jetport, said damage depends on the type the bird and the size and speed of the plane.

Though birds can knock out engines, he said, pilots are trained in single-engine flying.

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