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BASH team keeps ‘em flying

It is the responsibility of the Tinker Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard group to keep the airfield free from birds that can cause damage to flying aircraft. Their task is much more difficult in the spring and fall, when migratory birds fly through Tinker’s air space. (Air Force photo by Kelly White/Released)

It is the responsibility of the Tinker Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard group to keep the airfield free from birds that can cause damage to flying aircraft. Their task is much more difficult in the spring and fall, when migratory birds fly through Tinker’s air space. (Air Force photo by Kelly White/Released)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Every spring and fall, tens of thousands of birds converge on Oklahoma during their migrations, leaving the skies and ground looking similar to a scene out of the 1963 Hitchcock classic, "The Birds."

At Tinker Air Force Base, the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard group, along with the 72nd Air Base Wing Civil Engineer Directorate's Natural Resources office, is charged with keeping the base flightline free from birds that could damage flying aircraft.

"We rely heavily on the Natural Resources office and their expertise concerning the birds and their migratory patterns," said Lt. Col. Beth Dittmer, chief of flight safety with the 72nd Air Base Wing Flight Safety Office. "Birds can bring down an aircraft, even large aircraft like the ones we fly here at Tinker. The E-3 community is especially aware of this after experiencing the 1995 Yukla-27 crash in Alaska that killed all 24 crew members."

According to Colonel Dittmer, Tinker has recorded 50 non-damaging bird strikes this year. Of those, 14 were on base, 15 were outside of Tinker's air space but involved Tinker aircraft and the other 21 occurred during flight and weren't noticed until after landing. That's not too bad, considering aircraft flew over Tinker's airfield 34,348 times this past fiscal year.

"In two years there has been just one bird strike that caused significant damage at Tinker," said Colonel Dittmer. "The strike caused Class-C damage with $118,000 to an E-3."

Tinker is located along the central flyway where millions of migratory birds traverse Oklahoma each year, according to Ray Moody, a Natural Resources biologist with 72nd ABW/CE. Migratory birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (50 CFR Part 21) and others. Biologists have documented 209 bird species on Tinker through class and non-class specific surveys.

Tinker also manages its avian species under the BASH Program. The 72nd ABW Safety Office is primarily responsible for BASH and the Natural Resources Program acts as liaison to agencies and consultant to the BASH group chaired by the 72nd ABW commander.

Mr. Moody said activity is typically elevated during sunrise and sunset and their numbers are counted during migration. "When the numbers around the base and area lakes increase, we keep the flying units informed," he said.

Since 2001, Tinker has partnered and worked under cooperative agreement and permits with USDA Wildlife Service in conducting an integrated bird/wildlife damage management program. The 72nd ABW/CE holds the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service depredation permit.

"Geese are unwelcomed visitors and if not regularly hazed and removed can increase to numbers which pose aircraft safety concerns," said Mr. Moody. "Gulls often frequent the Tinker airfield, particularly during migration and after precipitation events, when forage is found on runways. Another surprising visitor to the area lakes during the migration season are American white pelicans. These birds which flock in groups of 200 to 400 birds can be a significant threat to aircrews."

Mr. Moody added that in the spring egrets and herons often try to establish rookeries, or nesting locations, near Tinker. During those times, thousands of birds can migrate across Tinker at low altitudes. Egrets have been struck by aircraft in Tinker's flight pattern; therefore, active management for these species and their habitat on and off-base are conducted. Specific information about their control and other species are addressed in the Bird-Aircraft Strike Hazard Plan (Tinker AFB Plan 91-212) and Animal Damage Management Cooperative Agreement and Work Plans.

According to Mr. Moody, both the Air Force and Tinker policy is to employ non-lethal control methods such as hazing, trapping and relocation, early nest removal and other techniques to control wildlife.

However, at times, lethal control is necessary. Mr. Moody said lethal means are used with discretion, when hazing is not working and persistent wildlife species are posing significant health, safety or environmental damage concerns. For example, lethal control is typically used for coyotes on the airfield, beaver and for small numbers of gulls to reinforce pyrotechnic hazing of large flocks of these birds.

"Our two Wildlife Service biologists are key in keeping our airdrome safe," said Mr. Moody. "Without them our strike rates would be significantly higher."