The Coast Guard intends to spend $146,000 over the next two years to train a "rescue squab" of pigeons to find people lost at sea.
A Navy report just released says that in experiments, pigeons strapped on a helicopter outdid Coast Guard air crews every time in spotting objects tossing on the ocean's surface.
But, in the first flight casualty of its kind, the first three pigeon graduates drowned at sea when the helicopter they were riding in ran out of fuel and crash-landed off Hawaii. The humans got out unscathed.
The Coast Guard is paying the Navy to train 10 more pigeons for rescue duty as part of Project Sea Hunt.
These pigeons will be better protected on their air rescue missions, Douglas Conley, Coast Guard project officer, said an interview yesterday.
Instead of riding in a plastic bubble underneath the helicopter, as was the case in the fateful Febuary crash, the pigeons will ride in a capsule on the side of the helicopter, Conley said. The earlier capsule tore off and sank when the helicopter crash-landed. The three pigeons inside, strapped to their special couches, drowned.
Before being lost at sea, the pigeons piled up an impressive record in search and rescue drills over the Pacific. Some evidence from the Naval ocean Systems Carter report on the competion between pigeons and humans:
The pigeons spotted the floating target, colored life preserver orange, 90 percent of the time on the helicopter's first pass while the air crew saw the object only 38 percent of the time. (The pigeons pecked, as they were trained ashore to do, on a special pedal that flashed a signal to the pilot.)
The pigeons outperformed the human spotters even though the "aircraft personal had prior knowledge of the target's approximate position and could relax between trials."
Besides spotting the object in 80 of 89 trials while the humans did not see it at all on 55 of those first passes, the pigeons also were the first to report the sighting almost every time.
"Those pigeons really did well," Conley said. He predicted the new class will see duty with several of the Coast Guard's 12 air rescue stations.
The 10 pigeons attending ground school at the Navy's laboratory on Kailua, Hawaii, are expected to be ready for flight duty in October.
In the first part of ground school, the pigeons are taught to peck a lever every time they are shown orange -- the color of life preservers. They are rewarded with food if they peck at the right instant.
After mastering pecking, the pigeons are subjected to the noises a helicopter makes so they will not be frightened when they fly in one.
As their training progresses, the pigeons are strapped into special tiny couches, in a capusuled and taken to a spot where they can look out to sea. Orange objects are towed out to sea to test the pigeons' acuity and response time.
All training takes about six montqs. Conley said yesterday that some of the new class of pigeons probably will "wash out," but he hopes at least six of them will qualify for helicopter duty.
The six pigeons which have an average life span of 10 years would give the Coast Guard two crews for search and rescue. Each capsule carries three pigeons in separate compartments facing different directions to cover all points of the compass in sesrching the sea for orange life preservers.
If all goes well, Conley said, the pigeons eventually will be trained to peck their signal pedals when they see yellow or red as well as orange. Some life preservers are those colors.
Asked why the Coast Guard did not train hawks or falcons for sharp-eyed searching of the sea, Conley said "plain old park pigeons" also see well and are easier to train "probably because they're calmer. They don't seem to mind it." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Robert Barkin -- The Washington Post