Cadets work to decrease bird strikes

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – Col. Bill Thornton, former 46th Operations Group commander, takes a look a the damage a bird did to the F-16 Falcon aircraft he flew during his fini flight as a commander here. Wildlife biologists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services are tasked with implementing the Bird and Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program. Colonel Thornton is currently the 412th Test Wing commander at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Col. Bill Thornton takes a look a the damage done by a bird strike to his F-16 Falcon aircraft after his fini flight as a commander here. Wildlife biologists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services are tasked with implementing the Bird and Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard program. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- A group of Academy cadets is working to put a dent in bird strikes, directly linked to the deaths of 250 people in 25 years and the cause of more than $700 million in damage to U.S. and military-owned aircraft annually.

"The impetus behind this capstone course is the devastating cost of damage to aircraft from bird strikes," said systems engineering management major Cadet 1st Class Dan Gieck.

Specifically, the group of nine cadets is testing to see if aircraft noise, Canada geese distress calls and flashing landing lights will scare away a type of wild goose that can weigh as much as 18 pounds, effectively turning into a feathery cannonball when struck by an aircraft. The working name of the cadet's system is the Airborne BirdStrike Countermeasure."

"A bird strike is when an aircraft and any type of avian species collide," said Capstone Director Capt. Jeffrey Newcamp. "It can cause aircraft structural damage, you can have a bird ingested into an engine, or it can be just a glancing blow. Bird strikes can end in an incident in which case you can land your aircraft, or in an accident in which case there could be major damage or loss of life."

In particular, Canada geese pose a huge problem for pilots: anyone questioning this need only recall the story of Academy graduate and retired U.S. Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, III., Newcamp said.

On Jan. 15, 2009, Sullenberger was piloting an Airbus 320 from New York's LaGuardia Airport when his plane struck a large flock of Canada geese shortly after takeoff.

"He hit a flock of Canada geese and the bird strike dropped both engines off line," Newcamp said.

Sullenberger landed his Airbus in the Hudson River after realizing it would be impossible to land at another airport and saved the lives of all passengers aboard.

The Sullenberger saga serves as the cadets' case study and as the inspiration for the project, Newcamp said.

The test is part of a two-semester capstone design course scheduled to run through April, sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory. The testing will take place in two locations on the Academy and in Monument.

"The testing will include a sound element that simulates Airbus 320 (passenger jet) engine noise, and another sound that simulates Canada geese distress calls," Gieck said. "The other element included in the testing is landing lights from an Airbus 320. The Airbus 320 sound and landing lights simulate an actual approaching aircraft."

Along with the airbus noise, the cadets use a flashing light and a six-second Canada goose distress call, Newcamp said.

"We hypothesize that the combination of the flashing light and distress call will cause the geese to alter their flight path, thus preventing bird strikes," he said.

Using the results from the testing, the cadets' system may be implemented on an aircraft in the future to decrease the number of bird strike-related accidents, Gieck said.

"We finish testing at the end of this semester, publish a report and take the report to the Bird Strike Committee USA annual conference in Milwaukee in August," Newcamp said.

The cadets hope to partner with the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014, when they plan to fix their system to a light aircraft for further testing.

"They know how many of their classmates have gone off to pilot training," Newcamp said. "They are working on a project that directly impacts the safety of themselves and the people they know."