A tour helicopter went down this week in New York’s East River, leaving at least five people trapped inside. While the cause of this crash was not immediately apparent, New York City has extensive experience with such crashes, including many caused by collisions with birds. After a US Airways flight crashed in the Hudson River in 2009 because geese were sucked into its engines, the US Department of Agriculture established a Bird Hazard Reduction Program, which, since its inception, has killed over 70,000 birds in the greater New York area in an effort to make aviation safer.
But what if it isn’t necessary to kill birds to prevent loss of lives and the loss of millions of dollars as a result of flight delays, damage and in the worst case, downed planes? What if authorities could predict bird migration paths with greater accuracy and simply steer clear?
Planes and birds collide over New York skies every day. Since the Department of Agriculture’s program was initiated nine years ago, incidents of birds striking planes at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports have roughly doubled, to on average of 300 a year, even though scores of brown-headed cowbirds, doves, geese, seagulls and other birds have been killed as part of the hazard reduction program. Nationally, the statistics are worse. Over the past 23 years, on average, bird strikes have forced one plane a day to land prematurely.
Officials use several techniques to disperse birds, including relocation, fireworks, lasers and even changing the habitat around the airport. “We do our best to reduce the risk as much as possible,” says Laura Francoeur, chief wildlife biologist at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the airports, but “there’s still a lot of random chance involved.”
In 2016, the Port Authority signed a five year, $9.1 million agreement with the Department of Agriculture to survey, manage and research the wildlife around area airports. “There has to be a long-term solution that doesn’t rely so extensively on killing birds and also keeps us safe in the sky,” says Jeffrey Kramer, of the group GooseWatch NYC.
But in fact, just such a solution has existed for years. The Port Authority and federal agencies should look for guidance to Tel Aviv University’s Yossi Leshem, one of the world’s top bird migration experts. In the early 1980s, Leshem realized that birds crashing into Israeli jets were causing hundreds of millions of dollars of losses, cracking or completely destroying wings and engines. In fact, birds have caused more damage to Israeli airplanes than all Arab armies combined.
This is because more than a billion birds use Israel’s airspace to travel between three continents. In the fall, as the weather gets colder and food supplies shrink, birds start their 5,000- to 6,000-mile journey from Europe and Western Asia to Africa, returning in the spring. This creates what Leshem calls “a political nightmare, and a bird-watcher paradise.”
In the early 1980s, Israel, with the region’s largest air force, had no idea how to solve the problem. Military leadership was resigned to losing planes and people. That’s when Leshem proposed a novel idea, ingenious in its simplicity: discover the birds’ migration routes and avoid them. Leshem realized it was not feasible to limit the ability of the air force to fly during migration season or to change the birds’ flight patterns. Pilots would have to share their tiny country with their feathered friends.
To gather accurate data, Leshem would need multiple ways of tracking the birds, all of which had limitations. He set up observation stations around the country with birdwatchers who used binoculars and telescopes to count the birds and record flight patterns. But birdwatchers couldn’t count their targets at night when it was too dark, or during the day when the birds were too high in the sky. Leshem asked for help from Ben Gurion Airport’s radar station, but radar can’t identify types of birds, register the exact number in a flock, or tell how high the birds are flying.
Leshem finally decided that the only way to understand birds was to fly with them, and he took to the air in a single-engine Cessna and various gliders to gather data on the speed, location, altitude and direction of various birds. Over several years, he spent thousands of hours tracking them.
Leshem produced a very accurate bird migration map and showed that during migration season, the chances of a bird colliding with planes increased exponentially. The solution was clear: pilots needed to change their behavior, since birds wouldn’t. Leshem created two maps detailing bird-heavy zones, one for the fall migration, the other for spring. Each showed when and where to expect birds and the various types a pilot was likely to encounter. Leshem also included passage times for flocks to cross Israel.
By the mid-1980s, the air force was using Leshem’s data, maps and calendars to ban flights in bird-plagued zones during migration periods. According to former Israeli Air Force Commander Avihu Ben-Nun, the IDF plotted out preferred routes and evasive maneuvers to help pilots avoid birds and ensure minimal changes to the training program. Since the mid-’80s, this has reduced bird strikes by 76 percent, saving the lives of pilots and birds and an estimated $1.3 billion, according to Major General Ido Nehushtan, also a former Israeli Air Force commander.
The late Ezer Weizman, a former air force pilot and later president of Israel, noted that thanks to Leshem’s work, “the number of collisions between fighter aircraft and migrating birds has been dramatically reduced, and the project has become a model for Western air forces.” Airport authorities around the United States need look no further than Leshem’s model.