April 18, 2009
This year’s plane crash into the Hudson River sparked international attention about the danger birds can pose to airplanes. It’s a threat pilots at Offutt Air Force Base take very seriously, and now there’s a new tool helping them monitor the skies.
New technology helping to solve a very real problem. During the spring and fall, as many as 600,000 birds fly within 100 miles of the base. “During fog or low visibility conditions, we might be able to hear the birds but we can’t see them, we don’t know what altitude or where they’re at,” said MSgt. Ryan Burley.
Over the last five years, bird strikes have cost the base 10 million dollars. “Some of that is the cost of doing business, but if we could capture some of that, we could focus that money on something else,” said Maj. John O’Neill, the acting chief of safety.
Now the Merlin Bird Strike Avoidance System is helping pilots do just that. “The radar is objective. It can see everything. It can see things that the human eye can’t,” O’Neill said.
The radar system is capable of spotting birds four miles away and up to three miles into the air. It’s especially beneficial at night, mapping a bird’s size and path in real time and then calculating the damage risk to passing planes. “The computer assigns a much higher risk to a turkey vulture than to a starling, which weighs one ounce,” O’Neill said.
The 300-thousand dollar radar system is just one of numerous tactics safety officials use to reduce the threat from birds. Loud noises, explosions and habitat changes also work to keep birds away, but leaders say this radar is an increasingly important piece of the puzzle. “It won’t replace anything we’re doing now, it’s just another added benefit for us,” Burley said.
The system does have a few drawbacks. It doesn’t work when it’s raining or when birds aren’t moving. It’s been up and running for the last month, but leaders say it’s too early to tell what kind of impact it will have on the amount of damage done to Offutt aircraft.