In Bridstrike Campaign, Falcons Are Fighting Fit

 - October 31, 2006, 11:45 AM

It has been little more than a century since mankind figured out how birds do it and applied that knowledge to slipping the surly bonds. Ever since, we have been relying on the airfoil shape of a bird’s wing to shed gravity’s shackles and enter the sky on wings of our own. We have applied that same clever curvature to propellers, to the blades that force air through turbine engines and to the other end of a helicopter’s collective control.

And what of the birds? Now that they have shared their secret with us, we who climb aboard these man-made flying machines see them as nothing more than a hazard in the same sky they gave to us when we cracked their code. There’s gratitude.

There’s also no denying the potential consequences when birds and airplanes meet in their shared element, as graphically described later herein by a pilot whose C-141 Starlifter narrowly survived an encounter with between 20 and 50 Canada geese right at rotation during takeoff into 300 and one at McGuire AFB in 1994. The McGuire incident was a wake-up call, and a much harsher penalty was paid just a year later by all 24 people aboard the E-3 AWACS that crashed in September 1995 after hitting some Canada geese on takeoff at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska.

McGuire is located in the center of New Jersey, a predominantly flat area that lies beneath some major bird migratory routes and offers the wide open marshes and agricultural land that a whole variety of feathered fliers are happy to alight on and call home seasonally or permanently.

Officials at McGuire decided to tackle the birds by taking various measures, among them enlisting the help of perhaps the most magnificent of all our avian brethren, the Peregrine falcon, a bird whose mastery of the air is without equal. Ingrained in the “I’m about to be eaten” emergency-response section of the brains of lesser birds, this raptor’s distinctive wing planform and measured but powerful wing beat trigger the instinct to flee the area or lay low.

Peregrines don’t have to kill to be effective (in fact, killing other birds is not the goal); they just have to be seen to be Peregrines. Unfortunately, the Canada geese that are one of the biggest threats to airplanes generally do not fear a falcon unless they find themselves beneath it, according to Andrew Barnes, one of three falconers who fly 10 birds of prey at McGuire to deter others lower on the food chain. Among falcons and hawks, only a goshawk (its name derived from goose hawk, and weighing as much as 3.5 pounds) can be counted on to put the fear of imminent demise in a Canada goose.

Star performer Monty, a 10-month-old Peregrine male bred in California, is usually the first bird to greet visitors to the temporary structure that serves as base at McGuire for Canadian-based Falcon Environmental Services (FES, which also flies between 15 and 20 falcons at New York JFK Airport, and at Montreal Dorval and Toronto Pearson International Airports, and at a landfill in Ocean County, N.J.).

At 9 a.m. on a windy Monday recently in the FES cabin at McGuire, Monty was on Barnes’s gloved left arm, about to undergo a preflight check of takeoff weight. Too light and a falcon will be low on energy; too heavy and it will be less agile, and possibly not hungry enough to perform or, worse, to return to its handler after flying free.

His head covered with a handmade leather hood to keep him calm, Monty weighed in at 575 grams (1.3 pounds), 10 short of his recommended mtow, and Barnes was satisfied that the bird was up to the mission. Each falcon flies but once a day and almost invariably returns to its handler’s arm for the once-daily paycheck: half a fresh quail in Monty’s case. If a falcon makes a kill during its time aloft, the handler must move fast to secure his bird before it has eaten enough to fill its crop and dispel its dependence on the next reward of quail.

The once-a-day rota means there is a bird aloft at some point during every hour for 10 hours, which in the avian world represents essentially a permanent and convincing presence by this feared predator. McGuire keeps the statistics FES provides on every falcon sortie and has no doubts the birds earn their keep. Officials regard the annual bill of about $200,000 as money well spent.

The mission this blustery spring day put Monty on a perch in the capped bed of a Ford Ranger pickup truck that Barnes, armed with a handheld radio for talking with McGuire Ground, drove onto the ramp past lines of C-17s and KC-10s.

The first day I visited McGuire, the wind was blowing a steady 18 and gusting 30. While this is a mere breeze compared with a Peregrine’s top dive speed of more than 200 mph (making it the fastest creature on earth), such gusts add an element of stress for both bird and handler that Barnes chose to avoid on this occasion. Monty returned to the truck, and we drove back to the cabin to talk birds.

A pilot himself, Barnes came to the U.S. from Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and now lives on three acres in central New Jersey, room enough for him to raise his own falcons.

Time To Fly

The wind at McGuire had dropped the following day, and Monty was restless to fly. Once in position beside the runway, Barnes removed Monty’s hood, revealing the full majesty of this trained but still wild creature, and unshackled his leg straps.

The way a Peregrine scrutinizes the world is utterly mesmerizing, its large dark eyes seemingly capable of piercing steel with their intensity. Monty did not linger once freed from his shackles, and with slow but powerful beats of his strong wings he rose from the glove and climbed into the sky, the wires of two radio locator transmitters dangling slightly from his underside.

He climbed to about 300 feet and surveyed the scene, circling overhead Barnes for perhaps 10 minutes, unperturbed by the touch-and-go of a KC-10 right beside him. Presently Barnes started to swing a lure consisting of two duck wings sewn together and garnished with a piece of quail meat, and the show began.

Monty is a bird who loves to fly. He knows he does it better than any other bird and is not beyond showing off a bit. As I held the Nikon to my eye focusing on the lure, I heard him whip past my left ear, about a foot away and doing what Barnes said was probably 70 mph, as he stooped on the quarry.

Half a dozen times he repeated this, eventually catching the lure and devouring his reward of half a quail: 100 grams of meat, or about one-sixth his own body weight–the equivalent of a 200-pound person eating more than 30 pounds of meat in a single sitting. Barnes moved toward the bird and picked him up, securing his leg straps with no fuss. A falcon’s time aloft (“waiting on” is the term) varies depending on the bird and the conditions; Monty has waited on for as long as 45 minutes.

The FES birds are animals, and as such they all have different personalities. Monty clearly revels in what he does. Memphis, a cross between a merlin (smaller than a Peregrine) and a gyrfalcon (larger) and next on the schedule, was not so eager to fly this day.

He sat on his perch on the roof of the truck and seemed content just to feel the breeze blowing over his feathers. Eventually Barnes barked a command, and Memphis flew to his glove in an area beside the runway that had recently become popular with snipe. Memphis seemed reluctant to leave the glove, and even when four snipe flew out of the grass he did no more than lazily cross the area to alight on a chain-link fence 100 yards away.

Within 30 seconds the reason for his reluctance became apparent as a bald eagle flew overhead at maybe 800 feet. Relieved to see there was a reason for Memphis’s recalcitrance, Barnes said that a bald eagle will stoop on a falcon, given the chance.

Training a falcon takes great patience, and any mistreatment will cause the bird to desert. “The process takes as long as it takes,” said Stuart Rossell, manager of all FES’s falconry programs in the U.S. Falconers prefer birds that have been raised by their parents; otherwise, imprinted to associate humans with food, they will “scream the place down” whenever they see humans, said Rossell. A bird that passes the imprinting stage without human feeding behaves differently even when humans provide its sole source of food later in life.

A falcon is fully grown by nine or 10 weeks of age, and then the training can begin. Early on, it remains hooded most of the time when it is not feeding. The quickest transition from raw recruit to flying free and returning to the falconer that Rossell has seen is seven days (with a female Peregrine), but he worked with a Harris hawk that required eight weeks. Falconers start by feeding the bird “on the fist” and some are “downright horrible,” recalled Rossell. “Monty fed on the fist the first night, but some go for six or seven days before they’ll eat. Generally it takes two or three days.

“You teach them to jump for food, then you fly them on the lure. The process probably averages three to four weeks,” he said. Once the bird is flying free, the goal is to build its fitness by keeping it airborne as long as possible while maintaining its interest in chasing the lure and stooping on it. A properly licensed and certified falconer can buy a male peregrine for between $800 and $1,000; females, one-third larger and therefore able to tackle bigger prey, command anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000. Peregrines are tame to the extent that they allow handling but, Rossell cautions, “you have to be nice to them because they can clear off at any time if they don’t like things.”

The FES program at McGuire has not lost any birds in the six months it has held the contract to provide the service there, but the JFK operation has lost three Saker falcons. One disappeared, one was found dead in Virginia (the birds have FES’s phone number on a reward tag on their legs) and one barely made it off airport property before falling victim to a truck. To put that in perspective, however, it should be noted that the three birds were lost in the course of more than 16,000 flights over six years.

Falconry goes back thousands of years–as many as 4,000 by some accounts–and Rossell and Barnes both reject mechanical falcons such as Robofalcon (www., Tottenham, Ontario) as poor imitations that do not work: “They get mobbed by crows,” Rossell noted dismissively.

A Wake-up Call

As long as McGuire AFB has memories of Col. Tracy Scott’s experience on a Monday morning in August 1994, real live falcons will have work to do at the base. It was at 7:30 a.m. on that IMC (300 and one in light rain) day that instructor-pilot Scott was in the right seat of a C-141 lined up for takeoff to do nine or 10 touch-and-goes in the course of a 2.5-hour training mission. The airplane was light (200,000 pounds versus its mtow of 325,000).

At Vr, about 140 knots, the pilot in the jumpseat yelled “Birds!” and Scott recalled looking up from the instrument panel and seeing “nothing but white through the windshield.” The white was the bellies of geese, which started to hit the airplane with a noise that Scott likened to that of a jackhammer. The Air Force later estimated that the airplane had hit between 20 and 50 Canada geese.

A dip beside the runway had concealed a pool of rainwater and a flock of the heavy birds that had risen as one as the airplane approached. “The grass had been left to grow as a cost-saving measure,” Scott noted, a cutback soon seen as a false economy and long ago remedied.

“Engines one, two and four rolled back. One and four rapidly recovered after blowing out the geese. Two stopped dead, and as we climbed into the cloud the tower was screaming at us that we had fire down the left side of the airplane,” Scott recalled. “We climbed straight ahead to 2,000 feet, and as the flaps started to come up, the flight engineer told us the number-two hydraulic pressure was falling.” This is the system that powers the brakes, flaps, spoilers and landing gear. Scott put the flaps back to their approach setting.

The flight engineer went back to look for evidence of flames but saw none, and the crew dismissed the tower’s report as probably being a spark trail as the engine spat out its innards. But he did see holes in the fuselage, before making the unwelcome discovery that the number-three hydraulic system, which powers the emergency brakes, was also out of pressure.

“This was not bird-related,” noted Scott. “Apparently it just wasn’t our day. But there were brilliant brains on board, all highly experienced in the 141. We entered a hold at five to 15 DME at the approach end of Runway 6 and considered our options, one of which was Dover’s [Del. AFB] 13,000- foot runway.” But in the end they decided to head for the runway closest to them and prepared to return to McGuire’s 10,000-foot-long Runway 6, the runway on which they had taken off and left a trail of engine and bird parts from the point of impact to the end of the concrete–all of which was now being cleared so they could land.

“We had no anti-skid, no primary brakes, no spoilers and a wet runway,” Scott said. The FE had predicted the landing roll would be 8,500 feet, assuming that the pressure the crewmembers had hand- pumped into the number-three hydraulic system did indeed activate the emergency brakes. Scott did the landing and brought the airplane to a halt 50 feet short of the FE’s estimate–but blowing seven of the eight mainwheel tires in the process. Looking back on the incident now, Scott attributes its successful outcome to how well the crew worked together and how well the Air Force had trained them.

The Elmendorf AWACS hit far fewer geese than Scott’s C-141, but they were enough to destroy both engines beneath the left wing and bring down the Boeing.

As falconer Rossell noted, only luck in where the birds hit and what they hit separates a catastrophic birdstrike from a non-catastrophic birdstrike. Falconry programs are helping pilots make their own luck.