BY JODI PETERSON
In 2021, two Air Force fighter jets and a tanker made emergency landings due to engine damage. In 2019, during a Thunderbird air show at Colorado’s U.S. Air Force Academy, one of the F-16s fighters in a formation had to abruptly return to base. The previous year, a T-38 trainer at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma crashed after its engine caught fire.
What do these incidents have in common? Their cause—mid-air collisions with birds. When a plane hits a bird in flight, it’s not just lights out for the bird, it can cause major damage to the aircraft and injure or even kill its occupants.
Since 1995, two major bird strike incidents have killed 27 U.S. Air Force pilots and crew members and destroyed 13 aircraft. While fatalities are rare, dozens of less-serious incidents have also resulted in harm. Most strikes involve vultures, hawks, bats, and other winged creatures, but terrestrial species, such as deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs, can also endanger aircraft. At least 4,000 wildlife “events” happen annually within the Air Force, costing at least $28 million per year.
Now, a partnership between Colorado State University’s Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands (CEMML) and the Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC) seeks to integrate data to help avoid such incidents—collectively known as Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard, or BASH.
The collaboration began three years ago, at the 2020 National Military Fish and Wildlife Association conference. Although the Air Force has long sought to reduce BASH risk through measures such as hazing animals away from airfields with pyrotechnics and tracking bird flocks with radar, it lacked a consolidated solution that would allow stakeholders to share existing data about bird and wildlife populations, habitats, and more.
A CEMML staffer specializing in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and an Air Force wildlife biologist at the Air Force Safety Center (AFSEC) struck up a conversation at the conference about how to better take advantage of the immense amount of data available. CEMML’s Gwynn Ellis identified a data- and resource-sharing opportunity that would consolidate wildlife hazard survey information in one location along with other relevant Air Force datasets. Kyle Russell, deputy branch chief of the AFSEC BASH team, had already been investigating GIS support services to visualize and manage this data. Together with Ken Poulin, AFCEC environmental GIS program manager, they determined that CEMML could build a dashboard to meet the needs of the Air Force, and they were eager to set up pilot programs at installations.
While the Air Force analyzes each aircraft collision involving wildlife, the process is reactive, happening only after the damage has already been done. The approach that Ellis and Russell discussed would be proactive instead, meant to “prevent today’s hazards from becoming tomorrow’s mishaps,” Russell said during a presentation about the project at the 2022 National Military Fish and Wildlife Association conference.
Ellis and Russell decided on a dashboard proof-of-concept to create a more effective approach to BASH risks. The dashboard would integrate a wide array of information sources, so that users could generate visualizations and make management decisions. The project leverages ongoing work, including available Global Positioning System training and support, environmental data on wildlife species maintained by CEMML for AFCEC, and existing BASH data.
One of the first pilot projects took place at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base from October 2020 through March 2022. A citizen-science approach was used to identify wildlife hazards that could affect airfield operations. AFSEC and CEMML trained wing safety personnel in field data collection and gave them hardcopy and mobile maps with predefined survey locations for recording the necessary information. CEMML analysts standardized the resulting data, then built a dashboard to help users determine where birds, deer, and other wildlife congregate; calculate density of these species across the survey area; and identify other trends and patterns.
A quick viewer within the dashboard allows users to filter data by location, activity, habitat type, and more; add other layers of information such as wetlands, elevation, and water sources to provide context; and view bar and pie charts to visualize the data. With a complete picture of wildlife hot spots alongside potential attractants, such as specific vegetation types or low-lying areas that hold water, airfield managers can reduce identified hazards using targeted management techniques. For example, if a type of shrub that attracts birds is found near an airfield, it can be removed.
Now that the pilot project at Creech has succeeded, the team is scaling up their work for use across the Air Force. Russell and Ellis have standardized the dashboard to make it easy to replicate at other installations, both in the U.S. and abroad, and to ensure consistent analysis and results. The collaborative effort has developed dashboards for nine installations so far, and provided hazard survey support for two more, including Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. AFSEC oversees personnel conducting the surveys, while CEMML provides technical assistance and training for data collection and development of the dashboards.
The collaboration has a few challenges to overcome still, such as user access and hardware solutions. But with CEMML and its Air Force partners working together, installations will have the necessary tools and data to help keep aircraft—and people—safe from wildlife hazards.