AWACS tragedy spurred safety improvements

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. William Banton
  • JBER Public Affairs
"Lot of birds here ... We took one! We took two of them," called out Capt. Glenn Rogers Jr., aircraft commander, over the radio. "Elmendorf tower, Yukla two-seven heavy has an emergency ... lost number two engine we've taken some birds."

On Sept. 22, 1995, an E-3B Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System, call sign Yukla 27, crashed, killing all on board.  Upon investigation, it was determined that up to 33 Canada geese near the flightline struck the aircraft that day.

Each year, civilian and military aircraft report thousands of bird strikes. According to the Department of Defense Partners in Flight webpage, the Federal Aviation Administration annually reports approximately 2,300 wildlife related incidents involving civilian aircraft; the Air Force and Navy usually report an additional 3,000. The DoD is constantly striving to improve its aviation safety programs.

One of these programs, the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program, was created to preserve war-fighting capabilities and provide pilots with safe operating environments, through the reduction of wildlife hazards.

"After the Yukla two-seven accident, the BASH program went through a serious modification," said Rob Hahn, then-Elmendorf Air Force Base chief of flight safety, in a documentary produced by Morningstar Entertainment for Discovery Channel in 2003. "We went to the experts at the Department of Agriculture and had them do an assessment of the current BASH program and how we can make it better."

The program began to be managed by the USDA on Elmendorf Air Force Base in 2000. The USDA wildlife specialists coordinate with the airfield manager and other base officials to maintain consistent reporting of strike events while trying to identify the species involved.

The goal is to try and better understand why certain species are attracted to particular areas or training routes and to implement procedures which will keep pilots safe while preserving local wildlife.

"When I got here I was pretty much told not to mess with the birds," said then-Chief Master Sgt. Tracy Matthews, former 3rd Operations Group superintendent in charge of maintenance. "You look back and [the crash] changed everyone's attitude about that, and not just here, but throughout the community."

The immediate response to the crash was to bring in propane cannons, which put out a loud acoustic sound to scare off wildlife.  At that time a bird hotline, 552-BIRD, was also implemented to help pinpoint problem area around the base.

Since 2000 JBER added fences around the airfield and implemented a habitat modification, which has greatly reduced the numbers of wildlife in that area.

Habitat modification can be anything from removing low spots that create standing water to controlling grass height, said Jerry Morrill, USDA wildlife specialist.  Geese like to eat the new short grass, so if you keep the grass about 11 inches high there is no food for them to eat.

To limit bird strikes, flying limitations based on the migration patterns of common local birds are sometimes placed on pilots.

"A lot of birds will migrate in the evening or at night, so if you are doing low-level flying [then] you're going to have more bird strikes," Morrill said.
In recent years the installation has installed electric fences and removed unnecessary trees and foliage.

These have reduced the number of mammals on the flight line and eliminated nesting opportunities and black bear dens.

The USDA also has a raptor-trapping program, to help relocate large birds of prey off the runway. So far the USDA has yet to see relocated birds return to the area.

Similarly, the USDA worked with pest control and airfield management this summer to help decrease an unusually large number of grasshoppers on JBER, due to an overly dry spring. Grasshoppers are attracted to the flightline on warm sunny days, making an easy-to-find food source for birds.

Morrill said when all is said and done the BASH program is working toward a singular goal.

"Our focus is to get these guys down safe so they can get back to their families, we don't want more Yuklas " Morrill said.  "That was a terrible tragedy and unfortunately it should have never happened, but it did - and it was a valuable lesson learned."