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FAA records 2,253 wildlife strikes in Arizona since '90

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport had the most reports of plans striking birds and other wildlife of any Arizona airport in a Federal Aviation Administration database documenting the incidents. A city official said the airport cooperates with nearby Tempe to keep the bird population down at Tempe Town Lake. The database with voluntary reports of wildlife strikes goes back to 1990. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Sean Peick)

PHOENIX -- On April 17, 2000, a United Airlines jet struck a turkey vulture on approach to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and landed with $50,000 worth of damage to a wing.

On Aug. 27, 2002, a Southwest Airlines jet that apparently sucked a dove into an engine after taking off from Tucson International Airport made an emergency landing in Phoenix with six dented fan blades.

On Aug. 18, 2004, a small turboprop plane operated by a medical transport company slammed nose-first into an elk while landing at Show Low Regional Airport. The impact killed the elk, caused the pilot to momentarily lose control of the plane and resulted in $416,200 worth of damage.

These were among 2,253 instances of aircraft striking wildlife at and around Arizona airports documented in the Federal Aviation Administration's Wildlife Strike Database from 1990 through Oct. 31 of this year.

The data covers incidents voluntarily reported by airports, airlines and others.

A Cronkite News Service review found eight Arizona strikes that resulted in injuries, none of them fatal and none involving commercial flights. Forty-seven of the reports cited damage of $1,000 or more.

Wildlife strikes are most commonly associated with areas that have more bodies of water than Arizona. The January 2009 emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River is the best-known recent example.

But aviation officials here say they are aware of the threat of wildlife strikes and doing all they can to reduce the risks.

Sky Harbor, for instance, worked with Tempe to make sure Tempe Town Lake, in the airport's flight path, is surrounded by desert landscaping rather than vegetation that would attract birds, said Deborah Ostreicher, a deputy aviation director for the city of Phoenix.

"We're very focused here on preventative and proactive measures," she said.

Sky Harbor has had the most reported strikes in Arizona since 1990 with 1,150. Tucson International and Phoenix-Mesa Gateway, Arizona's next-busiest airports, have had the second- and third-most with 389 and 277 reported strikes, respectively.

Although Tucson International has birds, rabbits, javelinas and the occasional skunk in the area, it doesn't have much of a wildlife problem, according to Danette Bewley, the airport's director of operations. However, she said that officials monitor wildlife to assess potential hazards.

"We're looking at our surrounding environment to see what is out there -- beyond the obvious -- and what should we be looking for, and how we should be tracking it," she said.

Gateway's efforts include working with a nearby golf course to keep trees and shrubs trimmed to reduce the number of birds congregating there and taking other steps to control the environment around the airport, according to spokesman Brian Sexton.

Should Gateway face a sudden increase in the bird population, its plan includes using noisemakers, he said.

"We're in a desert climate, so there's not a lot of large fowl that will come into the area that would need water," Sexton said. "So we have a little bit of an advantage on keeping that bird population down."

At Lake Havasu City Airport, there have been two reported incidents in the past 23 years. The first, on Sept. 4, 2001, involved an unknown bird hitting a small jet shortly after takeoff and causing no damage or injuries. On Aug. 15, 2011, an unknown bird or bat struck an F-16 flying at 17,500 feet, with no damage or injuries reported.

Steve Johnston, the airport's supervisor, attributed the lack of strikes to a 7-foot-tall chain-link perimeter fence installed in 2005, the airport's distance from Lake Havasu and "blind dumb luck."

"It's that old real estate dynamic: location, location, location," he said. "And in this location, we just don't have a whole lot going for us to attract wildlife."

Arizona's 2,253 reported incidents since 1990 are the 18th-most among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. California reported the most with 11,383, while Wyoming reported the fewest with 190.

But in the opinion of Archie Dickey, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a higher number of reported strikes at a given airport or in a given state doesn't necessarily indicate a greater threat. Instead, it likely means that airport or state is doing a more thorough job of reporting.

Arizona's lack of water actually makes it very safe compared to other states, according to Dickey.

"If you think about airports in the eastern part of the United States or even on the West Coast, many of them have been built next to a river, next to the ocean, things like that which end up being habitats and places for birds to hang out and come to," he said.

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