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Safer Skies for Navy Fliers and Vultures

Windscreen damage to a training helicopter.

Windscreen damage to a training helicopter.

Bringing USDA expertise into a cooperative effort with the U.S. Navy and a telecommunications company recently made flying safer for hundreds of vultures and Navy aviators near Milton, Fla.

Naval Air Station (NAS) Whiting Field, located in Northwest Florida, is the world’s busiest air station, accounting for nearly 1.5 million annual flight operations and primary flight training of over 1,200 students. With two separate primary airfields, it uses 13 outlying landing fields in Florida and Alabama to support primary and intermediate flight training. NAS Whiting Field hosts six training squadrons and two instructor squadrons, comprised of 308 fixed-wing planes and helicopters.

Joshua Kuechle, wildlife specialist, and I joined NAS Whiting Field in July 2010, as USDA Wildlife Services airport biologists. While conducting daily surveys to create a Wildlife Hazard Assessment and a Management Plan, we also identify and help mitigate on- and off-site wildlife hazards to Navy aircraft.

A vulture roost about two miles southwest of Whiting South Field Runway 5 posed one off-site hazard where an airspace corridor was used daily by student pilots flying TH-57 helicopters. Observations at a 180-foot-high cell phone tower yielded 300 or more vultures roosting, flying and towering above. Data shows that turkey vultures rank among the top four bird species or groups as an aviation hazard.

The deployed, very lifelike, effigy.

The deployed, very lifelike, effigy.

Whiting Field has suffered four vulture strikes over the past year. Three resulted in windscreen damage to T-34 and TH-57 totaling more than $16,000 in losses. All were fatal to the struck birds.  Although damaging strikes did not occur near this particular cell tower, the potential strike threat existed due to the large vulture concentration.

USDA research has shown vulture effigies to be an effective technique to disperse a roost.  We contacted the tower company and its on-staff biologist directed us to regional operations. Once the problem was explained, the company moved quickly, supplying an installation crew. Two climbers dropped rope and ground crew connected a Styrofoam-and-feathered decoy, which was hauled 60 yards skyward to blow in the breeze around the tower.

Currently, no birds are utilizing the tower and less than 10 birds have been seen utilizing the area’s airspace since dummy’s deployment.

Both aviation and vulture safety has increased, as has human health due to fewer birds and defecation at the site. The local community has commented positively about fewer neighborhood vultures.  The vulture displacement effort was a win-win scenario for all involved.

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