Wild Birds, Big Jets and Potential Trouble at Dallas Love Field

NBC5 investigation reveals FAA inspectors worried about “wildlife hazard”

Documents obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show the Federal Aviation Administration has raised concerns about large birds congregating in the approach areas near two main runways at Dallas Love Field.

In June, the FAA sent a letter to the City of Dallas saying the airport was not in compliance with all FAA rules, citing a “wildlife hazard” that could pose a danger to incoming airplanes.

FAA inspectors observed “numerous gulls and ducks feeding, flying and loafing, on and over Lake Bachman.”  The city park is located directly in the approach pattern for two main runways north of Love Field.

The letter goes on to say, “we did not observe any direct and immediate action to either notify pilots of the hazard or remove the wildlife.”

Day after day, NBC 5 Investigates saw similar situations at the park. On one recent visit to Bachman Lake, dozens of pigeons sat on the landing lights as one larger bird flew right across the path of an incoming 737.

Each time NBC 5 Investigates visited the park there were no signs of the city or airport employees monitoring the birds or attempting to discourage birds from gathering in the area. In some spots along the lake, as many as 60 or 70 ducks could be counted in one place.

When NBC 5 Investigates asked Terry Mitchell, the city’s assistant director of aviation, what the airport was doing about the situation. Mitchell said that prior to the FAA inspection his safety crews’ main weapon against birds was using a car horn.

“They’ll blow the horn and whatnot to get the birds out of the area,” said Mitchell, who now said the airport is looking into other measures to move the birds off the runway.

“It was pretty impressive when I saw the amount of damage that one bird could do,” said Jennifer Ewald, an airline pilot that hit a seagull during a flight in Philadelphia last year that turned the plane’s nose inside out. “A couple of inches higher and he would have come through the windscreen and it could have been a much worse outcome.”

If an airplane hits a bird it can damage the plane’s wings, engines and even force the plane out of the sky.

One notable bird strike occurred Jan. 15, 2009, when a US Airways flight departing LaGuardia Airport in New York City made an emergency landing in the Hudson River.

But four years after that big wake up call, Dallas Love Field apparently did not have a comprehensive program to deal with the large birds around the lake.

In June, the FAA ordered Love Field to take immediate action including considering implementation of a “hazing or harassing program” to keep the birds away from the area around Bachman Lake.

Love Field officials still don’t seem convinced that the birds are a major threat.

“Just the mere presence of the birds, if they’re not in flight and they’re pretty docile and whatnot, you know the nature of that hazard is pretty low,” said Mitchell.

NBC 5 Investigates showed video of birds around Bachman Lake to wildlife biologist Nick Carter, a consultant who has worked with the U.S. Air Force and airports all over the world to reduce bird strikes.

“They didn’t walk there by the way. So they flew there, which created a risk,” said Carter. “Seventy ducks sitting there sunning themselves next to the lake you can absolutely do something about that. You should absolutely do something about it. And if you don’t do something about it then I think you’re responsible for the consequences that happen outside that. It’s negligence in essence”, Carter said.

Mitchell agreed that a large group of ducks in the flight path is an immediate threat but said, “these ducks are sitting on the water, they’re not going anywhere, they’re not doing anything.”

But that’s not always the case.

According to the FAA data, planes hit birds at Love Field five times a month, on average, last year. Since 1990 there have been 630 reported bird strikes at the airport involving more than 400 Southwest Airlines jets. And 87 strikes hit pigeons, gulls, ducks, geese or “large birds” not specifically identified.

“I think we’re doing everything we reasonably can do,” said Mitchell. “This is that programmed approach. We’re looking at it. We don’t have an immediate threat right now to address. We have a condition that needs to be managed.”

Since the FAA ordered the airport to take action, the city is now considering more aggressive steps.

They hired their own consultant and removed some tress where birds nest. They’re considering bird spikes on the landing lights and inspecting the area for birds at least twice a day. And they say if they see people feeding ducks, as NBC 5 did on recent visits, they will ask them to stop.

The city’s also testing noisemakers to scare birds and considering using pyrotechnics.

Nick Carter said that may not be enough.  His Willis, Texas-based company, Birdstrike Control Program, uses measures including border collies to clear out large birds in the morning, making the landing zone safer the rest of the day.

“Those are real predators, this is a wolf that we’re now putting into the environment,” said Carter.

Cater said the problem is the FAA’s rules don’t require airports to show what they’re doing is actually getting rid of the birds.

In fact, at Love Field, the city wrote a letter describing its plans and the FAA told the airport it is now in full compliance even though the airport is still just discussing and testing options for dealing with the birds.

And the birds are still everywhere at Bachman Lake.

Just a year ago, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general wrote a report criticizing the FAA for not effectively implementing a program to reduce bird strikes.

In a statement to NBC 5 Investigates the FAA said that the number of damaging wildlife strikes has decreased nationally over the last 13 years.

“While no plan can eliminate all strikes, the mitigation efforts at airports have caused a significant decrease in damaging strikes on airport property nationally,” the FAA statement said.

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