The wildlife biologist at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport helps prevent incidents like “The Miracle on the Hudson” by keeping birds from disrupting operations and endangering passengers.
Seven years ago, a US Airways pilot was forced to make an emergency water landing in New York’s Hudson River after his Airbus A320 struck a flock of Canada geese and its engines failed. Everyone survived and media organizations dubbed the incident “The Miracle on the Hudson.” Now Hollywood has its hold on the story, with Tom Hanks playing the titular character “Sully,” the pilot who decided to ditch.
Seattle Times critic Moira Macdonald raved about the film. Hanks plays the humble hero with a twinkle in his eye rather well.
But on Friday, at least one viewer will have just as much interest in the story’s villain — the faceless flock of geese that felled the flight.
Steve Osmek is a wildlife biologist at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He’s in charge of keeping birds and other wildlife from disrupting airline operations and endangering passengers.
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Lately, things have been busy for Osmek.
“In North America, there’s no time of year we have more birds flying around than this time of year. All the young have left their nest. They’re moving, feeding and getting ready to head south,” he said.
Jetliners strike birds about 60 times a year at Sea-Tac during more than 300,000 takeoffs and landings. Passenger planes are designed to withstand striking birds up to 4 pounds, but sometimes birds damage planes or force landings at the airport.
Sea-Tac has had a wildlife program since the 1970s. But Osmek said media coverage of the 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson” made the importance of his job easy to understand.
“At the time, I was working on the performance plans and goals … how can I make my job seem relevant?,” he said. “All of a sudden this pops up. Wow.”
Since the incident, the Federal Aviation Administration has beefed up its regulation of airport wildlife programs, Osmek said.
Osmek and the airport’s operations team track birds with an avian radar system. Three radar systems (including a newly installed 3D system) scan the airport grounds for birds. If the radar senses persistent activity, a goose noise will honk through speakers in the airport’s operations center and a map will light up with a grid section highlighted.
Then, an airport worker drives out to find the birds and chase them from the airfield with noisemakers, pyrotechnics, sirens or flares.
Osmek also modifies the airport ecosystems. Nets are used to keep waterfowl out of the airport’s stormwater-detention ponds.
He traps and euthanizes non-native species like pigeons and starlings. Osmek catches larger birds alive; eagles, hawks and other raptors are collected and sent on flights to Burlington, Skagit County, where they are released.
That’s probably for the best. They avoid becoming a fowl puree in a jet engine, and Sea-Tac passengers can worry less about needing a quick-thinking, twinkle-eyed pilot to save the day.
Also, Puget Sound is cold this time of year.