Bird patrol targets air safety threat

A dedicated bird control unit will be established to fight the threat posed by birds and other wildlife to air safety in the Cayman Islands as airport bosses consider more expensive, long-term solutions.

The threat of a catastrophic bird strike, like the one that caused a US Airways plane to crash land in the Hudson River in New York, remains a remote possibility in the Cayman Islands.

But international aviation regulations require airport managers to do everything in their power to reduce the potential threat posed by wildlife.

And 14 “bird strikes” in the past three months in the Cayman Islands have served as a timely reminder to safety chiefs at Owen Roberts International Airport that action must be taken to counter the problem.

A meeting of the Cayman Islands Airports Authority Wildlife Hazards Working Group heard on Monday that US aviation experts had issued a list of recommendations for Grand Cayman’s airport, including filling in lakes on the property and relocating a neighboring children’s park to reduce the attractiveness of the area to birds.

Options, including partnering with the Mosquito Research and Control Unit to eradicate flies – a major food source for large egrets at the airport – and reducing the attractiveness of the neighboring landfill site as a nesting spot for birds, were also discussed.

John Dick, of the Civil Aviation Authority, warned that several problems and potential solutions had been identified over several years and had “not gone anywhere.” He warned there would be liability issues in case of an accident if airport safety staff did not address the situation. He said they needed to document why the recommendations had not been followed and look at alternatives.

Andrew McLauglin, senior manager of safety management systems at the airport, pointed out that filling in the lakes and relocating the park were prohibitively expensive.

He said the airport, in the last month, had piloted a program of using a dedicated member of staff to scare off wildlife.

Alastair Robertson, of the CAA, said the project should continue, with additional manpower, until the funding could be found to carry out the experts’ recommendations or identify other long term solutions.

“There is a cost that comes with running an airport, because you are concerned with public safety, if nothing else comes out of this there should be a recommendation from this committee that you employ more manpower until you can get some of these things resolved, because they are going to take a long time.”

Other recommendations from the meeting included a review of the landfill site and setting up a subcommittee to look at relocating the airport park.

The minutes to the meeting recorded: “The airport park was pointed out as one of the major concerns for wildlife problems at the airport. Garbage being left around the area by small children and park users as well as the lids of the garbage bins constantly being left open attracts rodents that will eventually attract birds of prey.”

Mr. McLaughlin said the wildlife issue was a problem for all airports. Iguanas, land crabs and even icatee turtles have caused problems for planes in the past.

Airplanes routinely absorb “bird strikes” without major issues. Modern aircraft are tested to withstand 6-pound birds flying into their jet engines during takeoff.

Any time a plane “ingests” a bird, the flight has to be reversed and the engines checked before the journey continues.

All of the recent bird strikes in the Cayman Islands have involved swallows and have caused no damage to the engines. There are typically one or two incidents involving birds every month at the airport.

Mr. McLaughlin said high grass, caused by heavy rainfall, was attracting more birds, leading to a small surge in incidents. The rainfall has effectively turned parts of the airport into wetlands, making the grass almost impossible to cut.

Egrets, much larger than swallows, present a greater danger.

The US Airways plane that crash landed on the Hudson in 2009 encountered a flock of Canadian geese at 3,000 feet, at least four of which entered the engines and killed the power. In an event that will go down in aviation history, the plane’s captain successfully landed on the Hudson River.

Since then, officials have organized a statewide cull of the geese to counter the threat. Mr. McLaughlin said people in the Cayman Islands could do their bit to help, particularly by cleaning up after events at the park.

“Members of our community who visit or use the park can assist us in mitigating these hazards by doing a proper cleanup of their area before leaving and ensuring that the lids are properly replaced on the garbage bin. In addition, airport neighbors, businesses and residents alike, can also play an important role in keeping our airport safe by not feeding any wildlife, including iguanas, as it encourages them to congregate in the vicinity of the airport and its areas of operations.

“These simple acts have been proven to greatly reduce the risks of this type of hazard to aviation. It should also be noted that the abandonment of pets near the airport also poses a hazard as they are then left to search for food and often venture onto the runway areas which unnecessarily causes aircraft delays.”

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