Although birds and planes have shared the skies for over 100 years, they’ve never lived in harmony. The planes go in the air, the birds hit the planes (or the planes hit the birds), the birds always die and occasionally it causes an aviation disaster. The most famous of these encounters was dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson,” when, in 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese 3 minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia International Airport (LGA) and, as a result lost all engine power. The pilots glided the plane into the Hudson River, and all 155 people aboard were rescued.
Since then, the USDA has slaughtered tens of thousands of birds on or near runways across the country. But one airport has opted for a more humane solution.
Instead of killing birds to keep them away from planes, Washington’s Reagan National Airport (DCA) has invested in more modern technology to scare the birds away instead of simply killing them; essentially, it’s eleven “bird cannons.” Six of the cannons shoot blanks but the other five are connected to a network of loudspeakers, so they’re able to scare the birds away with the sounds birds make when there’s a predator nearby.
The airport operations duty manager or his colleagues fire the cannons and/or play them the bird alarm calls about twice an hour during the birds’ peak spring and fall migration, and just a few times a day the rest of the year.
Years ago, employees fired the cannons on a set schedule but the birds learned the routine and began ignoring the sounds (so much for being bird brains!), so now they generally only set off the cannons when they see birds flocking too close to the runways. They also used to fire the cannons by hand, but the system is now computer-controlled by aiming with and clicking on a mouse.
Globally, there’s still about $1.2 billion in damage per year due to bird strikes, and even with the bird cannons, there are still several bird strikes at DCA each year; not even the air cannons are foolproof. But there are undoubtedly less strikes than there could be, to say nothing of being able to avoid killing the birds.
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