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BASH makes sure it's bye, bye birdie around MacDill runways

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Base security may be rock-solid at MacDill, but there is one intruder that comes and goes at will and is capable of bringing down a KC-135. The unwitting enemy is birds. Seagulls, buzzards, doves, redwing blackbirds, egrets and storks around the runway can spell disaster if they are sucked into the jet engine on takeoff or landing and it is the daily job of the BASH to eliminate the threat.

Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard is the designation of the element under the 6th Operations Support Squadron charged with monitoring the runway to ensure birds are not a threat to planes. Currently made up of two civilians supported by Air Force personnel from the 6th Air Mobility Wing Safety Office. These professional scarecrows work in shifts, utilizing an arsenal of specialized weapons in their war on feathered fence hoppers.

Capt. Angel Alvarez, chief of airfield operations, said the job is vital to the safety of aircraft and their crews. "It's absolutely critical to the overall mission," said Captain Alvarez, who recently took over the job after coming to MacDill from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.

"The job varies from air base to air base and while birds are a big problem here, back in Little Rock it was deer on the runway that was a big problem," he said. "No matter what kind of animal, though, it is the job of the BASH to make sure aircraft are safe for takeoff and landing."

Eddie Corely has been a BASH team member for about a year. He attacks his job with passion, knowing how important it is to saving lives and valuable equipment.

"I take a very aggressive attitude, because I love my job," said Corely, who has pushed hard to stiffen bird defenses on the base since arriving. The son of an Air Force officer and husband of an Air Force wife, Corely says there is a strong sense of military duty in the family and he takes pride in clearing paths of feathered obstacles to assist the overall mission at MacDill.

Corely said vigilance and careful observation are key elements of the job. Each time a plane approaches for a landing or prepares for takeoff, it is the job of the BASH team to ensure there is no threat from birds.

Among the tools the BASH uses are propane cannon set up every 1,000 feet along the runway. Timed to fire at varying intervals, the blast from the devices is designed to keep the birds spooked and away from the runway. The problem is when birds become used to the noise. Blast schedules are changed regularly to help prevent the birds from becoming to used to the sound, but still some species get accustomed to them, reducing their effectiveness.

But Corely has other weapons at his disposal. He carries a special pistol that fires what are known as screamers. Propelled by a blank cap, the screamers are launched into the air and create a loud whine that is particularly effective on seagulls, said Corely. Until about a year ago, remote control model airplanes were used to scare birds, but were abandoned when reliability problems and the inability to deploy them rapidly combined to kill the program.

For high-flying birds, like turkey buzzards, a 12-gauge shotgun that fires a special shell with a firecracker in it, can be used. When all else fails and for birds that never get the message no matter what technique is used, Corely said he is authorized to use "deprivation," a pleasant way to describe the use of real shotgun shells loaded with bird shot. When the lives of pilots and crews are on the line, sometimes there is no alternative, he said.

The technology and industry of professional bird scaring is improving, as well. Annual conferences on the subject are held and a promising new mini rocket that can reach 1,500 or more feet and explode to chase off high-flying birds is awaiting approval for use at MacDill, said Corely, who sees it as a way to deal with buzzards, one of his most difficult foes.

The buzzards ride thermal currents, often circling dead or dying animals. That is why part of Corely's job is scouting for dead or wounded animals around the runway and removing them. Soft shell turtles, gopher tortoises, raccoons and other animals all make their way to the runway at times. When found they are frightened off or in the case of turtles and tortoises, are relocated. Recently Corely has taken to marking the slow-moving creatures to study whether relocation is effective. So far one tortoise that was marked has made its way several hundred yards back to the runway area after being moved. He hopes the tracking will help him devise more effective relocation strategies. Understanding the animals with which he deals is critical, he said.

By careful observation, Corely has become familiar with the habits of all the species that inhabit the base. Some, like storks, tend to stay on the ground and around the many marshy areas near the runway and pose little threat. Some burrowing owls that live at the south end of the runway likewise pose little threat, as they are low-flying. Others, like seagulls are prone to fly over the runway at higher altitudes and must be chased away before planes can use the runway.

Sometimes the problem is controlling the food sources that attract the birds in the first place. Fiddler crabs sometimes come in from the Bay and run across the runway, attracting seagulls, which dive down to eat them. When the runway was repaired and upgraded a year ago, millet was mixed with the new sod planted along the runway. A major food source for doves, the millet was chow call for the birds, which were a major problem until spraying helped reduce the millet supply.

"It's a challenge every day," said Corely. "But it's important, because when you think about what can happen or when you are looking at a million dollar repair bill for a bird sucked into an engine, you start to see why."

 

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