KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) - On a nice, sunny day in the 1960s, air taxi pilot Dick Hamlin picked up two women and their babies to take them to a logging camp on Kasaan Bay. As the air taxi approached Grindall Island, Hamlin noticed an eagle in the air, watching the plane.
Suddenly, “he gets into an updraft, and he’s got his wings spread and he comes up and he turns, coming at me with his claws,” Hamlin recalled. Hamlin yelled a warning to his passengers and maneuvered to avoid a collision, leaving the women hanging on to their children.
“He didn’t realize that he was about to die,” Hamlin said of the eagle, “and I didn’t want the rest of us to end up in the same situation.”
While that eagle’s behavior was unusual, the Ketchikan Daily News reported, birds and airplanes frequently collide by accident over Alaska, the result of an uneasy timeshare arrangement between species that is costing airlines millions of dollars in the state.
Federal Aviation Administration records of bird “strikes” are incomplete, due to lax reporting rules and the fact that the FAA rarely records military-related events. But since 1990, at least 41 bird strikes have caused serious damage to aircraft in Alaska.
Those types of collisions - statistical rarities among the hundreds of “harmless” bird strikes reported in Alaska - come with a big price tag: “Repair estimation of $1 million was reported as conservative,” a report to the FAA noted with clinical detachment after a Polar Air Cargo plane’s 747 jet engine ingested a bald eagle last year in Anchorage.
But the costs have the potential to be much higher. Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that April’s fatal plane crash north of Anchorage happened after a small plane hit a juvenile bald eagle. The crash killed four people, including pilot George Kobelnyk, a former NTSB employee who helped investigate aircraft accidents. And in 1995, a gigantic Boeing E-3 Sentry hit a flock of geese while taking off at Alaska’s Elmendorf Air Force base and crashed, killing all 24 servicemen aboard. Counting the April accident, 29 civilians have died in bird-related plane crashes across the country since 1990.
In Ketchikan and Prince of Wales, airports engage in a number of practices to keep passengers and multimillion dollar airplanes safe along an arterial road for migrating birds that occasionally swells into a highway.
A few weeks ago, the military called Ketchikan International Airport Manager Mike Carney to tell him they were coming through the area with a C-17 and AWACS planes (another term for the Boeing E-3 Sentry).
“The first thing they ask,” Carney said, “is, ‘what’s the bird activity?’”
The bird situation in Ketchikan is essentially as follows: When it comes to airplanes, the main animals to worry about are eagles, geese and gulls. Bald eagles and gulls are repeat offenders that have been hit by arriving or departing planes, though recently the airport has mostly had trouble with smaller, comparatively less dangerous shorebirds.
The size of a bird is a major factor in how much of a threat it is to airplanes but personality also plays a role. For example, ravens thrive in the dense, coniferous rainforest and glacier-gouged waterways of Southeast Alaska, but they are rarely hit by planes.
“Ravens are smart,” explained Ketchikan airport wildlife biologist Steve Scheldt. “They know enough to get out of the way.”
Bald eagles are literally a different breed: Scheldt said one Alaska Airlines pilot told him of an eagle near Yakutat that would fly out toward a jet, roll on its back, flare its talons and challenge the plane as it would another eagle.
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