Alaska Man's Job Is To Keep Skies Bird-Free For Airplane Takeoffs
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
All I'm going to say about this next report is that it's about hazing, just not the kind you might think. It involves birds at an airport in Alaska and it's designed to save lives. Emily Forman reports from member station KCAW in Sitka.
EMILY FORMAN, BYLINE: The noon flight to Ketchikan is 30 minutes away from takeoff and Dave Tresham spots his target. He speeds to the end of the runway and stop his truck.
DAVE TRESHAM: Now, we have two eagles. So the more you leave the birds alone, the more they'll show up.
FORMAN: Tresham chooses a pistol loaded with pyrotechnic shells called screamers. The shells spiral wildly, shoot sparks and disperse the flock. Screamers tend to work best on eagles who don't fear much at the top of the food chain. Tresham makes a living hassling bald eagles. It's called hazing. His goal is to avoid bird-airplane collisions and the messy by-product when it happens. The technical term is snarge.
TED WILLIAMS: The largest fear is doing a takeoff and then having a bird becoming ingested in an engine and have an engine fail.
FORMAN: Alaska Airlines pilot Ted Williams remembers when the engine of a 737 inhaled an eagle in Sitka.
WILLIAMS: It just cored the engine.
FORMAN: It tore the blades out. The pilot stopped the plane mid-takeoff.
WILLIAMS: About 100 feet remaining on the runway from the edge of the water there.
FORMAN: Then the replacement plane hit an eagle. After those strikes, the USDA hired Dave Tresham to come up with a comprehensive plan for deterring birds.
TRESHAM: Many times I'll spend an hour, two hours picking bugs and worms up off the runway.
FORMAN: Really, you'll go to that level of detail?
TRESHAM: I have pictures of night crawlers. There's an isopod, it's called a rock louse. I've picked up literally hundreds of them out toward the centerline of the runway.
FORMAN: He's constantly tweaking, filling in puddles with gravel and trimming tall patches of grass. He has to think like a bird. The job has made him and his seasonal assistant Heather Bauscher really tense airplane passengers.
HEATHER BAUSCHER: Oh I see birds - why isn't anybody doing anything about that?
TRESHAM: Why isn't anybody getting these birds out of there?
FORMAN: They are both much more comfortable on the ground, stone's throw away from a 737 as it's taking off because that's where they have the most control. Tresham can literally change the course of a speeding plane minutes before it lands.
TRESHAM: So we have eagles above them, eagles below them, eagles in front of them. So we'll be talking to the pilot five to seven miles from the airport - if we can see them - telling them, hey, you've got eagles.
FORMAN: The very last resort is a lethal take. He's relied on that method a lot. It's usually a gull that just doesn't get the picture. Protected species are off limits. In those cases, Tresham uses bangers, noisy shells that don't kill, they just scare.
TRESHAM: We have - just to the south on their approach, we'll have three to four, maybe five, eagles are flying from those trees. From this distance, those birds have felt that banger going off.
FORMAN: The eagles clear the runway.
TRESHAM: And if anything starts coming in this route, I'll be talking to the pilot, letting them know what the birds are at.
FORMAN: The noon flight to Ketchikan is almost ready to depart. Tresham sees a few eagles flying overhead and takes one more shot at clearing the runway.
TRESHAM: And there's a safe departure.
FORMAN: Without any snarge in sight. For NPR News, I'm Emily Forman in Sitka.
INSKEEP: Let the hazing begin. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.