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Since the first days of powered flight, humans have been sharing the sky with birds. We don't always co-exist peacefully, though. Over the last two decades, airplane bird strikes have killed more than 200 people around the world and cost the U.S. aviation industry hundreds of millions of dollars.
NPR's Robert Benincasa reports on the search for a way to keep man and bird on separate flight paths.
ROBERT BENINCASA: The next time you get on an airplane, consider how far human flight has come. In 1930, it was still faster to travel across the country by train. Anyone fearless and wealthy enough to fly endured jarring flights in unpressurized cabins.
Today's high-tech airplanes move us around the world so well, it's become routine. Still, there's one low-tech problem we haven't quite solved: birds.
Mr. CHESLEY SULLENBERGER (Pilot): This is Cactus 1549, hit birds. We've lost thrust in both engines. We're turning back towards LaGuardia.
BENINCASA: You probably recall what happened to that U.S. Airways Flight back in January.
Unidentified Man #1: Yes, there was a bird strike. Can I get him in for Runway One?
Unidentified Man #2: Runway One, that's good.
Unidentified Man #1: Cactus 1529, turn right 280. You can land Runway One at Teterboro.
Mr. SULLENBERGER: We can't do it.
Unidentified Man #2: Okay, which runway would you like at Teterboro?
Mr. SULLENBERGER: We're going to be in the Hudson.
BENINCASA: We're going to be in the Hudson, the words of pilot Chesley Sullenberger. He was forced to bring his plane down in the river after both engines sucked in geese and lost power.
The bird strike problem has worsened in recent years as bird populations have grown. Most strikes happen at low altitudes near airports. So until now, airport managers have tried to make the ground around airports inhospitable to birds. They've changed the vegetation the birds feed on or disturbed their rest with loud noises. But what if we could warn the birds away from an approaching aircraft in the sky?
Brad Blackwell is a wildlife biologist for the Agriculture Department, and he's trying to break down the communication barrier between species.
Mr. BRAD BLACKWELL (Wildlife Biologist, Agriculture Department): Vision is the primary sensory pathway in birds. And so if we can play upon that sensory pathway, understand it, and use the lights that are on the aircraft basically to buy time for the aircraft and buy time for the birds…
All right, birds, here we go.
BENINCASA: Enter the geese. We're at Plum Brook Station, a high-security government campus near Sandusky, Ohio. A member of Blackwell's team climbs into the back of a pickup truck and ushers four Canada geese into a neatly mowed, fenced-off circle 56 feet across. Cameras surround the birds, recording their every move.
The geese, with their wings clipped, pad peacefully around the grass until Indiana State University biologist Steven Lima comes on the scene.
Mr. STEVEN LIMA (Biologist, Indiana State University): Surprisingly, no one's actually looked at how planes approach birds and how they respond. It's never been done.
BENINCASA: So Lima's doing it now with a model plane. It looks like a miniature Cessna about six feet long with bright, white, pulsating LED lights mounted on it.
(Soundbite of model aircraft)
BENINCASA: Lima works the two joysticks on a radio control box, sending the plan aloft.
Mr. LIMA: Right at them.
BENINCASA: He flies the plane over the heads of the birds a few times that brings it down in a rough landing.
(Soundbite of model aircraft)
Mr. LIMA: Not bad for (unintelligible) landing.
BENINCASA: Getting a rise out of these geese is a challenge. They're city dwellers, rounded up in a Cleveland park. Like many of the birds near airports, they're well acclimated to human activity, and that's part of the problem.
Mr. BLACKWELL: They're obviously not afraid of this aircraft. It's a nine-foot wing span that's coming right at them. They even challenge it in some cases. Then there is the ducking response, but they're definitely not taking initiative to get out of the way.
BENINCASA: So what might warn the birds off? Qantas Airlines recently reported a reduction in bird strikes when it mounted pulsing lights on 737s. Blackwell's team wants to firm up the science behind those observations.
Mr. BLACKWELL: In this experiment, we run a treatment with the aircraft approaching without lights and one with the lights.
BENINCASA: You want to know if the lights make a difference.
Mr. BLACKWELL: I want to know if the lights can make a difference, even if they give us a slight edge, and then can we tweak the system a little bit more? Can we start playing with wavelengths that these birds can see better?
BENINCASA: Biologist Esteban Fernandez-Juricic looks at video from a previous day's flights in a nearby trailer.
Mr. ESTEBAN FERNANDEZ-JURICIC (Biologist, Perdue University): The first reaction that you see is that the birds pull together, and they group together very quickly as the airplane goes by. And then the second reaction that we can see here is that some individuals duck down right there.
BENINCASA: The geese are ducking. They seem to regard the plane as a predator. The challenge is to make that predator as threatening as possible. But first, Fernandez needs to understand what the birds actually see.
Mr. FERNANDEZ-JURICIC: Humans have three visual pigments, birds have four visual pigments, and this visual pigment usually is in the UV range, in the ultraviolet range. So birds can perceive more colors than humans can.
BENINCASA: So we might end up some day with lights on aircraft that are ultraviolet that we can't see that the birds can.
Mr. FERNANDEZ-JURICIC: We might.
BENINCASA: For now, though, the secret of a finely tuned aerial warning system remains with the birds.
(Soundbite of goose honking)
BENINCASA: Robert Benincasa, NPR News.
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