Lt. Col. Jeff O'Grady won't ever forget the time he kissed a black bird with his Air Force jet.
Flying an RC-135 near Offutt Air Force Base in 2002, O'Grady flinched as the crow smacked into his windshield.
“The bird's coming at the window,” said O'Grady, who is now chief of safety for the Offutt-based 55th Wing. “You duck because you're human, even though there's two panes of glass. Then, there's a bird stuck under the windshield wiper.”
Retelling the story usually prompts disbelief or laughter, O'Grady said.
But as the head of Offutt's Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) team, he knows better than most that bird strikes are serious business in the world of aviation. They inflict $700 million worth of damage each year in the U.S. and have killed 250 people over the last 25 years.
“We don't want damage,” O'Grady said. “And we certainly don't want anybody hurt out there.”
Last month, the Air Force gave O'Grady's team a new tool to keep birds and airplanes apart.
The MERLIN SS200m Aircraft Birdstrike Avoidance Radar System is a $500,000 trailer-mounted radar system that sits between the runway and the control tower.
The solid-state system was moved here from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. It's tougher and more reliable than the old system, said Ted Wilkens, the Air Force's BASH programs initiative specialist, and picks up bird signals much better than older models.
“The solid-state gives you a much clearer picture,” Wilkens said. “It's better in bad weather. It can see through rain now, and still pick up the birds.”
Birds have posed a hazard since the days of the Wright brothers. The first known fatal bird strike brought down a plane in 1912. A flock of starlings brought down an Eastern Airlines turboprop in Boston in 1960, killing 62 people in what remains the most deadly bird-strike crash in U.S. history.
But most nonpilots thought little about the threat birds posed to airplanes before the “Miracle on the Hudson” five years ago, when a U.S. Airways jet ran into a flock of Canada geese while climbing away from New York's LaGuardia Airport. The pilot ditched the A-320 in the Hudson River after the engines the birds struck lost power. Five people were hurt, but all aboard survived.
No one worries about bird strikes more than the U.S. Air Force. Since 1985, bird strikes on Air Force craft have totaled more than 104,000 incidents and cost $877 million in damage. Thirty-two airmen have lost their lives. Last year, two Air Force jets crashed after striking birds: a T-38 trainer in Texas and an F-16 fighter in Arizona. In both cases, the pilots ejected safely.
“ 'See and avoid' doesn't always work with birds,” said Maj. Dan Converse, the 55th Wing's chief of flight safety. “If you see them, it's hard to avoid them. We're going pretty fast, and we aren't that maneuverable.”
The Air Force shifted its efforts against bird strikes up a few notches following the 1995 crash of an E-3B Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane in Anchorage, Alaska. It hit a flock of birds — again, Canada geese — just as it lifted off from the runway at Elmendorf Air Force Base and crashed in the forest two miles away, killing all 24 onboard.
Converse said 1995 “was the Air Force's big wake-up call.”
Offutt's location on two migratory routes near the Missouri and Platte Rivers — both bird magnets — elevates the threat, Converse said. It's near two watery wildlife refuges and sits close to bird-friendly farm fields.
Plus, Offutt's risk is higher because so much of its traffic involves multiple takeoffs and landings, with planes spending a long time under the 3,000-foot ceiling in which 96 percent of bird strikes occur.
“Here, we do a lot of touch-and-go's,” O'Grady said.
Typically, 55th Wing aircraft hit birds 80 to 100 times a year, Converse said. In most cases, the damage is minor.
But not always.
On Jan. 7, 2013, an RC-135 sucked a mallard duck into one of its engines while flying at 2,500 feet 3½ miles southeast of the airfield, right over the Missouri River. It landed safely, but the bird ruined the engine, causing $700,000 worth of damage and taking the jet out of service for a week.
That was the worst incident at Offutt since 2005, when an E-4B — the military version of a giant Boeing 747 — sucked a Canada goose into its left inboard engine while on final approach to the airfield. As the pilot flew around for another approach, burning debris from the engine's turbine fell on the infield and set the grass on fire.
O'Grady happened to be piloting another jet at Offutt that day. He was waiting to take off when he saw the E-4B fly over.
“There were pieces falling off. I couldn't tell if they were going to hit my aircraft,” O'Grady said. “We had to cancel our flight. That was certainly the most catastrophic strike I've ever seen.”
The E-4B landed safely, but it suffered more than $8 million in damage. The incident prompted the 55th Wing to develop a more aggressive program to battle the birds.
“That was when our BASH program really took off,” O'Grady said.
Wing commanders hired a pair of U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologists to carefully watch the airport perimeter. They scare off birds using loud noises, including the recorded cries of predatory birds, and set cages to trap and move raptors.
They have drained ponds and cut down trees while controlling the population of rabbits, squirrels and pigeons to make the airfield as unwelcoming to birds as possible. They eradicate seed-bearing weeds. They meet with nearby landowners and urge them to take similar measures.
“We try to get these out of the way as best we can,” Converse said.
In 2009, the 55th Wing got its first MERLIN radar unit to supplement the USDA's low-tech bird-control efforts at Offutt. That one compiled data on the presence of birds around the airfield and produced a daily report for the BASH team, but it didn't give real-time information to air-traffic controllers.
The MERLIN SS200 does that. Its radar sweeps a four-mile radius from the airfield every 30 seconds. Areas with few or no birds show up green, while sectors with more bird activity come up yellow or red.
That picture shows up instantly on a screen in the control tower. The wing's supervisor of flight can recommend holding or rerouting flights if necessary.
“Even during the middle of winter, we see five or six thousand birds, every day,” Converse said.
The MERLIN radar puts Offutt a step ahead of Eppley Airfield which, like most civilian airports, relies on low-tech methods to discourage birds. They eliminate weeds and standing water, trap birds and release them elsewhere, and scare them with noise.
“These are the main tactics we use,” said Tim Schmitt, Eppley's operations manager. “The best thing you can do is try to get rid of the attractants.”
Sixty bird strikes were reported at Eppley Airfield during fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30, just two of which caused minor damage to the aircraft.
As long as airplanes fly, they'll encounter hazards of nature like bad weather and birds. The best pilots can do is look for better ways to avoid them.
“The only way to be completely safe,” O'Grady said, “is not to fly at all.”