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Hovercraft eliminates aviation threat at Batten International Airport

April 2005
HoverWorld Insider


The problem

Aircraft bird strike photo
A 747 flies through a formation of Canadian geese. Photo courtesy Bird Strike Association, Inc.

Orville and Wilbur Wright mastered in 1903 what birds have been doing naturally for more than 100 million years. Since then, the skies have become too congested for comfort. Today, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote with wry humor in 1999, the feathers are flying in a flurry of bird-aircraft face-offs.

The problem, however, is no laughing matter. From 1990 to 2004, more than 56,000 bird-aircraft strikes were reported to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration; the agency estimates this to be only 20% of the number that actually occurred.

According to the FAA and the Bird Strike Association, Inc. , a trade association representing the Bird-Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) management industry, bird and wildlife strikes to aircraft worldwide cost military and commercial aviation more than $1 billion a year, and more than 400 people have been killed in the last 20 years in bird-aircraft collisions.

The history

Calbraith Rodgers, the first person to fly across the continental USA, was ironically also the first to die as a result of a bird strike.

More recently:

• In 1991 the pilot of a Learjet was killed over Cincinnati, Ohio when a loon crashed through his windshield.

• In 1995, a U.S. Air Force AWACS plane struck three dozen geese at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, killing all 24 passengers. That same year, a small jet carrying then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich ran off a runway in northern Michigan after hitting four geese; a bird-plane incident during takeoff in Australia cost Qantas Airlines $8 million; and an Air France Concorde sustained more than $7 million in damages when it struck Canadian geese while landing at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Bird aircraft strike picture
Damage sustained from aircraft collision with a single turkey vulture. Photo courtesy Bird Strike Association, Inc.

The culprit

Canadian geese are a large contributor to this worldwide aviation hazard. Their numbers have exploded at an alarming rate; an estimated 4.3 million Canadian geese now live in the United States and Canada, and the once migratory bird has become a year-round resident hazard at airports. Compounding the problem, Canadian geese are protected under the Migratory Bird Act, which prohibits most mitigation efforts that would harm the geese.

Aviation Today reported in 1999 that although an individual goose can weigh more than 12 pounds, no aircraft turbine engine is designed to withstand the impact of birds weighing more than eight pounds. A flock of geese can cause catastrophic engine failure. Aviation officials calculate that a 12-pound Canadian goose, struck by a 150 mph aircraft at liftoff, generates the force of a 1,000 Lb (454 Kg) weight dropped from a height of ten feet (3M).

The hovercraft solution

John H. Batten International Airport in Racine, Wisconsin USA is only one of thousands of airports worldwide who have tried one unsuccessful solution after another on the Canadian goose dilemma. Airports are often located near wetlands, where federally protected birds proliferate.

But unlike other airports, many of whom spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on bird mitigation efforts, Batten Airport has the distinction of discovering a solution that works - a hovercraft – for a one-time cost of around $10,000.

Goose control hover crafts picture
Batten Airport Assistant Manager Mike Loew
pilots the airport's hovercraft.

 

Hovercraft are frequently the ideal solution where geographic and climatic conditions prohibit the use of other vehicles. Such is the case at Batten Airport, the largest private-owned airport in the United States. The airport is located adjacent to Quarry Lake Park, with an 18-acre, 90-foot deep lake right at the end of the runway.

Airport Manager David Mann explains that because of its depth, Quarry Lake is one of the last bodies of water in the area to freeze, "More than 5,000 geese at a time flock to Quarry Lake when all the other ponds and lakes are frozen. And all these geese come and go right through the approach of the runways. It's a very serious problem. The area is protected from wind and rain by cliffs, and with all those warm bodies churning up the water, it further prevents it from freezing solid," says Mann, "It's like a bus shelter for birds."


The airport's hovercraft is a pre-owned 52-horsepower Neoteric Hovercraft Questrek™ and its sole use at Batten is to evict the resident geese. "It's the safest thing we could come up with," says Mann, "This is the only way we can safely get out there with those geese. And the beautiful part is, it's working!"

"What we did with the hovercraft," he explains, "is just go out and run them off. There are two country clubs adjacent to the quarry, and as soon as the hovercraft persuaded the geese to leave, they would move to the country clubs who would use their dogs to chase them off, so they'd come back to the quarry - where we'd be waiting on them with the hovercraft."

After several days of chasing the geese back and forth, Mann says it allowed Quarry Lake to freeze and the geese finally decided to move to a better location. The hovercraft worked so well that after a few days they didn't even need to start it up: "After five days or so, we would just park the hovercraft on the edge of the lake and the geese would fly over, see it sitting there, and leave."

Mike Loew, Assistant Airport Manager and pilot of the hovercraft, reported in February after the hovercraft's first season of use, "I've been on water, ice and land with no problems. The geese don't like the hovercraft at all. We hardly have any geese left!"

Canadian geese control hover craft photo
Mike Loew, Batten Airport Assistant Manager/Hovercraft Pilot:
"We hardly have any geese left!

The hovercraft has been a welcome solution to a long-standing threat to aircraft at Batten Airport, who has a history of bird strikes. Just prior to the purchase of the hovercraft, an approaching jet was "right at the critical point, around 200 feet, where you either see the runway or you don't," says Mann, "and the pilot decided to pull up. He put the power up and went right through a flock." After the collision with the geese, the pilot was forced to fly to another airport without knowing whether or not the aircraft had been damaged.

"We've had other situations where aircraft on approach have been forced to abort because of a flock of geese in the way," Mann continues, "And a few years back a goose crashed through the windshield of a single engine plane. It landed in the cockpit and cut up the pilot pretty badly."

The geese pose not only a safety threat, but a financial threat as well. Mann says that Batten Airport has suffered thousands of dollars of damage to aircraft de-icing systems "due to beaks and such impacts."

Discarded solutions

Aviation officials worldwide are intensely focused on the hazards posed by geese and other birds, and have investigated a wide variety of mitigation methods. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has conducted ongoing experiments to find what might make airports unattractive to birds, including the use of model airplanes, recorded sounds of birds in distress, fireworks, blank gunshots, flashing lights, cars equipped with loudspeakers and chemical repellents. Airports have also used border collies to frighten geese away.

In 2004, O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois began using propane cannons, paintball guns, and a laser-beam gun to scare away bird flocks, as well as a series of hazing machines. The devices spray a grape-scented chemical cocktail called methyl anthranilate. According to Richard Dolbeer, national coordinator of airport wildlife services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "The grape flavoring acts as a repellent, like a bird tear gas. Methyl anthranilate is actually a non-toxic food flavoring that is used in grape Kool-Aid and grape bubble gum, but birds find it very aggravating."

Batten Airport investigated many of these methods before discovering that the hovercraft was a better solution. "Grape Kool-Aid actually works well in small ponds," Mann says, "but I'm afraid we don't want to fill Quarry Lake with Kool-Aid." The airport also tried both a remote control airplane and a remote control helicopter, "but we couldn't fly either of them as far away from us as the lake is big. Once they get so far out, they're very hard to fly."

Another proposal considered was to string wires across the lake to discourage the geese from landing. That idea was discarded because there was no way to prevent people from climbing on the wires and possibly injuring themselves.

Officials also considered shooting loud noises into the quarry to spook the birds away, but that idea was rejected because Mann didn't want to disturb the residents around Quarry Lake Park. The hovercraft, he says, generates enough noise to disturb the geese, but not enough to disturb the residents.

The hovercraft is working so well, Mann believes, due to "the combination of the noise and the ability to just get us out there with the geese at their level. We couldn't do this in any other vehicle." Since Quarry Lake is fully or partially frozen so much of the year, a boat was not a viable option.

Shooting the geese was out of the question. In addition to a public outcry against the idea, since geese are protected under the Migratory Bird Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would not permit the airport to shoot the birds.

Assisted by the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, Batten Airport and Muskegon County officials worked several years to find a solution that was both affordable and agreeable to the public.

"The hovercraft idea came from the Department of Agriculture," Mann explains. The Department of Natural Resources actually offered to help fund the hovercraft's purchase, but applying for a federal grant was a lengthy process. Mann felt "The matter was serious enough that I went to the airport board of directors for the money. We were getting strikes and I couldn't wait a year, maybe two, to get rid of the hazard caused by all these geese coming and going right through the approach of the runway."

Safer skies, cleaner water and a healthier bottom line

Canadian geese can also pose a health threat wherever they gather, and the situation at Batten Airport is not an exception. Quarry Lake is a mecca for scuba divers and one of the finest outdoor swimming and beach facilities in the Midwest. But the Canadian geese have tainted its reputation.

In addition to endangering aircraft, the birds have polluted the water and the beach with droppings. It is estimated that one goose produces 1-2 pounds of droppings a day. With a plague of 5,000 geese on the lake, it's no wonder that the once clear water became murky, making the lake unusable to divers and undesirable to swimmers. The Racine County Sheriff Department's Dive Team was forced to move its regular practices to another location, and the Department of Natural Resources instituted a water quality study for possible negative health effects.

Mann says the hovercraft has offered a solution for not only the aircraft hazard, but for the health hazards as well. "It will make the fishing a little better, the swimming a little better, and I know it will make the skies safer."

Safer skies, cleaner water, and a healthier bottom line – because now it won't be necessary for Batten International Airport to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to keep the geese away. One little pre-owned hovercraft is taking care of it all.

Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc.
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Telephone: 1-812-234-1120 / 1-800-285-3761 Fax: 877-640-8507

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