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Pilots should take heed of wildlife patterns

2/6/2009

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While the spectacular airplane crash and rescue in the Hudson River grabbed headlines across the globe, another bird-aircraft collision required the attention of Thurman Booth, Arkansas' state director of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture agency that handles such accidents.

Booth was investigating a medical helicopter that crashed after hitting a flock of snow geese. The pilot had to make an emergency landing near Widener, Ark., as he returned to Little Rock after taking a patient to Memphis. Birds crashed through the windshield, damaged the rotor and put a hole in the bottom of the aircraft.

"When there is one like the plane that went down in the Hudson, it kind of sensitizes people," he said. "And then the helicopter that hit the snow geese over in Widener was pretty dramatic, but luckily nobody got hurt."

Booth, who often examines tissue samples to determine which species caused an accident, saw photos of the helicopter and e-mailed the company telling them samples would not be needed this time.

    "The bird is a snow goose (Chen caerulescens). These birds are overabundant in eastern Arkansas during the winter months. The pilot is very fortunate. We will not need to retrieve parts of the bird for a positive identification."

While the USDA Wildlife Services Airport Wildlife Hazards Program works to alleviate animal-aircraft strikes, the helicopter accident could have been avoided by flying at a different time or elevation.

"A lot of times you can do things to the habitat at the airport itself that discourage bird use," Booth said, "and then sometimes, like this helicopter that hit the snow geese over near Widener, you know there are going to be snow geese there because they're overabundant.

"Just knowing a little bit about their habits. That happened at 6:15 in the evening. That's the time of day that you definitely don't want to fly anywhere close to the ground in east Arkansas because that's when snow geese are moving to get back to their roost spots."

The skies in east Arkansas fill with the V-shaped formations of snow geese. They are so prevalent the state has set a special light geese season with no daily or possession limits. Pilots should take heed.

"With the numbers we've got," Booth said, "you don't fly across that delta many times without encountering snow geese."