SFO works to prevent bird strikes

May 1, 2009 7:03:04 PM PDT
There is a larger awareness of the danger of birds near airports after Danville's Sully Sullenberger landed a U.S. Airways jet safely in the Hudson River in January. Airports work around the clock to keep wildlife away from planes and ABC7's Heather Ishimaru got a behind the scenes look at how they do it.

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Airport safety officer Alex Esquerra is one line of defense against a threat that never goes away. He has to make sure no planes will be overhead when firing pyrotechnics at birds to scare them away. Birds can seriously damage or destroy airplane engines.

In January, Danville pilot Sully Sullenberger successfully landed his U.S. Airways jet in the Hudson after a flock of geese destroyed both engines.

"Birds are the primary troublemakers, but we do have rabbits on the airfield and on occasion some cats," says Esquerra.

The rainy weather keeps the numbers down at the San Francisco International Airport, but the wetlands surrounding the airport are a shore-bird magnet. In February, pilots wanted to wait for birds to be removed from the runway before taking off.

"Can you accept departure?" asks a pilot.
"We've got about 10 birds hitting on the 1000-foot markers. If we could get those removed we could go," says an air traffic controller.

A safety officer is called out to clear the birds, but a United flight still hits some on landing, with no damage.

"And United flight #853 just had a bird strike here rolling out. A group of seagulls just flew right across the runway here, and hit them on the rollout here," says Esquerra.

A motion control sensor sets off the aptly named Phoenix Wailer with sounds intended to drive birds away, and plastic balls rise and fall with the tide in the airport ponds, so birds can't land there.

"Unfortunately, birds and planes don't mix," says Airport operations supervisor Al Harman.

Harman says safety officers are keeping birds at bay 24-hours a day. The Federal Aviation Administration says since 1990, there have been 45 bird strikes with substantial damage at SFO, but no one's been hurt.

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