By Louis A. Arana-Barradas, Air Force Print News
/ Published July 27, 2006
ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England (AFPN) -- Keith Mutton and Alan Marenghi roam the flightline at this base in their small blue vans doing a job that is truly for the birds.
The father and stepson duo command a squadron of falcons, hawks and owls that help keep away birds that pose a bird-strike threat to aircraft here.
But, it is not an easy job. They clash in a tough battleground -- a serene area of English countryside with a huge bird population. Most of the scare tactics the men use to keep birds away do work. And their main weapons are their hand-raised birds of prey they launch from their vans.
"Still, it's a constant battle. You must be more persistent than the birds you're trying to move. Because if you're not, they'll beat you," said Mr. Mutton, who owns Phoenix Bird Control Services.
However, since October, 17 aircraft trying to take off and land at the base took bird strikes. All but three occurred miles away from the base. The strikes caused no accidents or fatalities, though 100th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotankers sucked seven birds into their engines, wing chief of safety Lt. Col. Gary Slack said.
The wing contracts Mr. Mutton's company to manage its bird/wildlife aircraft strike hazard program, or BASH. Basically, the company clears the airfield of unwanted birds, colonel said. The main reason for the program is flight safety.
The bird patrols benefits the wing's fleet of 15 tankers. And it also helps the 352nd Special Operations Group's MC-130H Combat Talon and MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft and MH-53M Pave Low helicopters.
"Aircraft and birds don't mix," the colonel said. "We have a history in the Air Force of losing aircraft to bird strikes. They damage aircraft, engines and people and detract from the mission."
However, the goal of the program is not to kill birds, but to scare them away or cause them to not want to come back, Mr. Mutton said. To do that the Phoenix team employs a host of weapons, most that make a lot of noise. These standard bird-control methods include alarms, pyrotechnics, air cannons and distress-sound tapes.
"It's the distress call birds make to all the others that it's in serious trouble," Mr. Mutton said. "That makes the falcons more effective. However, if you use the distress call only -- and birds never see a falcon -- they will habituate to it and ignore it."
When all else fails, the team lets loose its falcons, hawks and owls. The contractor -- which also provides like services at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Fairford -- match their response to the threat. Owls take on the bigger intruders. And the falcons and hawks handle most of the rest. When he sends in the falcons, the intruder birds never win, Mr. Mutton said.
"Sure, we come under light pressure in bad weather or there are a lot of insects out, a lot of food supply," he said. "But the one thing that will move them is the falcon."
When birds see the falcons, they instinctively head for cover away from the flat of the airfield, which is devoid of trees, shrubs and high grass cover.
Helping deprive birds of that cover is another service the company provides. Mr. Marenghi, a biologist, advises the wing on how to manage its on-base habitats to make them less bird friendly.
"Our program isn't just about active bird control, where we go out and move the birds -- scare them. A lot involves trying to deter them from visiting the airfield in the first place," he said.
One way is to monitor the long-grass program. The company advises safety and civil engineer officials on how to maintain the grassy areas of the base. Keeping the grass cut to a length of between seven and 14 inches stops birds from landing. This is because if bird land on the grass, they cannot maintain any kind of integrity with their flock. And grass this length makes it harder for the birds to feed.
"We know how to minimize bird attractions, like not planting trees next to the runway," Mr. Marenghi said.
However, he said that doesn't mean customers always take the advice. Short-cropped lawns and trees make a base look good. But it will also attract birds. So the company keeps an eye on developments in and around the bases.
"That way, we'll be able to offer advice to base officials about what effects a change in the habitat will have on the number of birds they will attract," he said.
But the duty of reducing bird strikes is not all on the Phoenix crew and its birds, said Colonel Slack, who is from Cumberland, Md. Another part of the program is training aircrew. They must know the bird hazard conditions and when they are most likely to be a hazard.
For this reason the base, with Phoenix's monitoring, has three bird-control conditions, said Capt. Cameron Donough, a KC-135 pilot who is the wing's chief of flight safety. The base has low, moderate and sever bird conditions. The wing enforces the conditions to limit the potential damage to people and aircraft.
"When we go bird moderate, we're not allowed to do practice approaches in this area. We'll have to go somewhere else," the captain from Gig Harbor, Wash., said. "In bird severe conditions, everything shuts down."
But the severe condition is not common and usually last 20 to 30 minutes. In most cases, it involves a flock passing through that takes up residence at the end of the runway, the colonel said. When that happens, the Airmen call the experts to scare the flock away.
"So this program is not just about scaring birds," Colonel Slack said. "It's also about getting aircrews smart on how to avoid dangers -- like don't be doing a low-level flights over a marshy field during migration season, because your engines are going to scare up 60,000 geese."
The Mildenhall-Phoenix partnership is working, the colonel said. Bird strikes are down. And year after year, U.S. Air Forces in Europe recognize the company for the way it watches and tracks birds and how it comes up with ways to rid bases of unwanted birds.
"They're pioneers and good at what they do -- a real success story," the colonel said.
The company's pioneering spirit started when Mr. Mutton -- who has been working with birds 41 years -- was cutting grass at air bases in the late 1970s. An avid falconer, he saw ways to use falconry techniques to help get rid of the bird problems plaguing military bases in England. At two bases, more than 4,000 lapwing plovers, wading birds, were holding up air traffic. Then one hit an aircraft. The airfield managers who provided bird-control were overwhelmed.
Mr. Mutton gate it a try, using falcons. Within six months all the plovers were gone -- and they never came back. He has been at it ever since. The program evolved over a lot of years.
"We went from working five days a week, dawn until dusk, then six days, and for the last 10 to 12 years it's been seven days a week, 24-hours a day," Mr. Mutton said.
Of course, he said he cannot do the job without his birds. So the company's bird-training program is intense to turn out the best birds. Some of the techniques the company uses are from falconry, but applied to airfield bird control.
The aim is not to kill birds.
"We try for the near miss and scare the birds away," he said. "It's actually more efficient because we can cover more ground that way. We train them to do that."
The working falcons, hawks and owls start their training in the egg. Two days before they hatch, they break into the inner cell of the egg -- the big end of the egg. From there, owls receive voice training and the falcons and hawks get mostly whistle training. The aim is to instill a condition reflex to the handler's commands.
"Then we rear them on the dashboard of the van so they can watch the jets and all the trucks and everything else to see that's going on," Mr. Mutton said. "That's how their flying out the van window evolves. So it becomes like a mobile home to them.
"And, we teach them to be safe around aircraft," he said.
The trainers teach their birds to understand hand signals and to count. A waving hand means go away or circle. And two hands out means to climb. That training starts outside and then inside the van. The training is slow and commands constantly repeated.
"We do it slowly, until it becomes a reflex," he said. "And then, we teach them out of the van."
Birds get daily workouts. And when aircraft are not flying, they get to hunt. There are two reasons for that. The birds must catch prey as an incentive.
"And if they ever got lost -- and that would be extremely rare -- they'd have to fend for themselves until we caught up with them," Mr. Mutton said.
After years on the job, the man-bird teams are so effective that local birds know when they are coming. Even local rooks, a type of blackbird, respect the teams. Smart bird, rooks have learned the company's blue vans bring danger.
"All of them, even the pigeons, know we launch a falcon from the driver's side," Mr. Mutton said. "If birds see the falcon on the passenger side, they'll tend to sit around. But as soon as they see the van turn, they fly off. They know the falcon is coming."
The staff uses 30 birds of prey to keep the three bases clear of birds. And they work around the clock. That doesn't leave them much time off. Mr. Mutton said he has not had a vacation of more than three days in years. But he and his workers do not mind because they love their job and they provide a valuable service.
"This isn't a job, really," Mr. Mutton said. "It's a way of life."
That's good news for those who fly from Mildenhall, Lakenheath and Fairford.