SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C.: A trailer with antennas and wires temporarily parked on base awaiting transit to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, might not look like much, but it could save the military lives and money when it gets shipped later this spring.
The trailer contains a Merlin Aircraft Birdstrike Avoidance Radar System that will alert pilots and air traffic controllers to the presence of birds near one of the U.S. military’s busiest airfields in Afghanistan.
While currently used at some stateside Air Force bases and international airports, the installation of the bird detection radar at Bagram Airfield will mark the first use of this technology in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, said Gene LeBoeuf, the chief of the Air Force Safety Center’s Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard, or BASH, team.
Having bird detection radar at Bagram Airfield is a result of three years’ of effort between the Safety Center’s BASH team, headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and the U.S. Air Forces Central Command Safety Office at Shaw Air Force Base.
Lt. Col. Gary Rudman, the AFCENT deputy director of safety, said the decision to position the radar at Bagram Airfield was because the base has the highest bird-strike incident statistics of all the Air Force’s bases in the Middle East. Bagram Airfield, the hub for Operation Enduring Freedom operations in Afghanistan’s eastern region, is located directly in a path migratory birds fly each spring.
Since the base supports a combat zone, ceasing flights during peak bird traffic is nearly impossible.
In 2007, a kite, a large bird of prey native to Afghanistan, collided with an F-15E Strike Eagle and caused $1.2 million in damage to one of the aircraft’s engines. While the aircrew was able to safely land the aircraft, bird strikes pose a very real threat to pilots due to the high speeds the aircraft travel upon impact. Birds that get ingested in a motor or other vital portion of an aircraft can completely disable it and potentially cause a crash, Colonel Rudman said.
According to Air Force Safety Center statistics, the current cost for a bird detection radar system is approximately $300,000, while the average annual cost to repair Air Force aircraft damage due to bird strikes exceeds $35 million. The radar allows officials to see birds both day and night, farther than can be observed with high-powered binoculars, so pilots can be warned if they are flying into dangerous territory.
Colonel Rudman said bird-abatement efforts at Bagram Airfield to date have involved disrupting bird nesting grounds, harassing birds through various, noisy scare tactics, trying to limit the number of birds attracted to the base’s garbage site located at the end of the airfield, and removing birds that make their homes too close to the runway Additionally, AFCENT officials recently teamed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring wildlife biologists into Afghanistan to run the BASH program at Bagram Airfield, as well as the program at Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
Yet, birds continue to pose a threat to airfield operations. The introduction of the bird-detection radar at Bagram Airfield will give base safety professionals, pilots and air traffic controllers additional situational awareness to help detect and decrease the threat posed by bird populations.
“The AFCENT Safety Office will work with the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing (at Bagram Airfield) to develop a concept of operations for use of the radar,” Colonel Rudman said, suggesting deployed supervisors of flying may be able to help monitor the radar and relay the information to air traffic controllers and pilots. “Bottom line, it’s another tool we can use to mitigate bird strikes,” the colonel said.
Mr. LeBoeuf said the risks associated with bird strikes at Bagram Airfield will never be fully mitigated, but must be managed to increase safety. “Wildlife management is diverse and ever-changing because there are so many variables.”
The radar is one of many tools that will help Airmen curb bird strikes.