Anyone who knows of the “Miracle on the Hudson” also knows that birds and airplanes don’t mix.
The 2009 emergency landing of a commercial airplane after geese took out both of its engines was a particularly dramatic incident, but bird collisions are actually quite common. In 2015, for instance, at least 87 birds (and one bat) were hit by airplanes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
That number probably would have been a lot higher if it weren’t for people like Phil Kroll, 28, whose work as an airport operations duty manager includes firing cannons to scare birds off DCA’s runways.
They aren’t real cannons, of course. Six of the airport’s 11 so-called “bird cannons” shoot blanks, and the rest play a series of bird alarm calls — sounds birds make when a predator is nearby. Kroll or one of his colleagues activates them when they see birds flocking perilously close to the runways.
“The spring and the fall is migration time, so we set them off maybe twice an hour from sunrise to sunset,” Kroll says. “In the summertime and wintertime, we only have to set them off a couple times a day.”
In the past, employees fired the cannons by hand. The system is now computer-controlled, which is more efficient, but takes some of the joy out of the job.
“It’s just clicking a mouse. It’s like sending an email,” Kroll says. “But if you’re out on the airfield when someone else sets them off, it’s fun to see the birds scatter.”
Airport employees also used to fire the bird cannons on a fixed schedule, but the birds learned the routine and started ignoring the sounds. That’s why, these days, Kroll and his colleagues fire the cannons only when they see birds congregating.
“We always gotta try to stay a step ahead of the birds,” he says.
That’s for the safety of the animals as well as the aircraft. The most commonly hit species are chimney swifts, but 2015 also saw airplanes collide with larger birds, including one bald eagle and a snowy owl. Geese and ducks are also a concern, in part because people feed them at nearby Gravelly Point, Kroll says. So, if you picnic there, please don’t feed the birds.
“We don’t want a ‘Miracle on the Potomac’ situation,” Kroll says