The animal that came moseying along the runway that morning was a modest-size beast for a Virginia black bear: about five feet from snout to tail and a couple of hundred pounds.
But Dave Darrah figured it could only come to no good in the middle of his airport, so he set out to do something about it.
“We went out with a vehicle, and he ran over to the fence, climbed over and ran away. Never come back again. That’s interesting, because we have barbed wire at the top of the fence,” said Darrah, who is the director of the Warrenton-Fauquier Airport.
Unexpected encounters between animals and airplanes have caused hundreds of thousands of wildlife deaths and do $187 million in damage to planes a year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 1990, 66 aircraft have been destroyed, the agencies said. Although birds, by a wide margin, are most likely to collide with planes, most of the species aboard Noah’s Ark also have run afoul.
Alligators, iguanas, terrapins, pigs, horses, cows, caribou, moose, elk, bears, coyotes, beavers, minks and a yellow-bellied marmot are among 47 nonflying animals that have had encounters with airplanes, federal officials said.
The fence around Darrah’s airport stands nine feet tall, and the three strands of barbed wire add another three feet to it. That’s enough to keep the deer out, but a wandering bear is another matter.
“That’s the problem with bears,” said Michael J. Begier, national coordinator for the airport wildlife hazard program at the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Service. “They can climb pretty readily. That’s something we’re starting to see more of in different parts of the country. In the East, there have been more incidents of bears finding their way onto a runway.”
For decades, swelling suburbs have sought to preserve green swaths of open space that give the illusion of country living. They also are a haven for wildlife — deer, coyotes, the occasional bear and all manner of other animals.
Wide-open suburban spaces also attract airports. Two of the region’s biggest — Washington Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall — are in suburban counties. The third, Reagan National, is hemmed in on all sides, but wildlife thrives in the surrounding area.
Although animals and airplanes have coexisted since man’s first hankering to fly, the 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson” was an eye-opener for a lot of people about the perils of the relationship. The jetliner flown by Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger made a perfect landing in the river after a collision with a flock of Canada geese killed its engines.
Birds like wide-open fields like runways, where predators have a tough time sneaking close, and they like to fly. Airplanes like runways and flying, too. They collided a record 11,315 times last year, and there have been 138,257 collisions recorded in the nation since 1990, according to federal reports.
The list of types of birds that have collided with planes could rival “The Birds of America,” the seminal 19th-century work by naturalist and painter John James Audubon.
But among four-legged animals, deer are the most common. Since 1990, there have been 1,070 collisions between planes and deer, far more than coyotes (443), terrapins (41), alligators (19), cows (11), elk (11), moose (5), horses (3), caribou (2) and black bears (1).
In 1938, there were no deer recorded in Loudoun or Fairfax counties, home to Dulles Airport, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. By 2004, there were half a dozen per square mile, and residents probably will claim that there are far more now.
“They’re considered one of the most hazardous animals on airports,” Begier said. “It’s a lot more common than you think. It’s definitely something that we do deal with around the airports in the metro area on a routine basis. Quite extensive interactions with deer.”
He says that 89 percent of the time, when an aircraft and a deer meet, there is some sort of damage to the plane.
“Almost 100 percent of the time, the deer dies,” he said.
Although at least a couple of Boeing 737 passenger jets have struck deer since 1990, the majority of collisions between four-legged animals and aircraft have been at municipal or small-plane airports that can’t build massive fences to keep the critters out.
Despite ample fencing at Warrenton airport, a two-seater Cessna hit a white-tailed deer while practicing touch-and-go landings in 2001. The student pilot was able to bring the badly damaged plane down in a nearby field.
“Our whole airport is fenced in, and there’s only one way to get into the airport that’s open, and most of the deer do not come there,” Darrah said.
Although he reports few animal invasions, Darrah said his fencing can’t stop everything.
“A large snapping turtle, weighed about 35 pounds — that’s pretty big — was walking right down the center line of our runway,” he said. “We picked him up and dragged him over to an area where he could get out of the airport.”
Begier said collisions with white-tailed deer alone have caused just shy of $44 million in damage since 1990.
“You can have a very good fence, but sometimes you can have gaps between the gates, and that gap of 10 or so inches is enough for a deer to squeeze through,” Begier said.
Some airports use what’s called a cattle grate to deter deer, and airports also can apply to their states for permission to engage in what Begier prefers to call “depredation.”
Meaning, shooting them.
The Washington region’s three big airports have tall fences topped with barbed wire, and BWI has erected more than one fence for general security purposes in areas where deer are known to roam.
“The large airports like Dulles or Reagan or BWI, they all have very good fencing and usually have less problems with deer,” Begier said. “But the [non-commercial general aviation] airports across the United States are not adequately fenced, so they have a lot of problems with these animals. Fencing’s expensive.”
One of those airports is tiny Freeway Airport, a Prince George’s County airstrip next to Route 50 that does most of its business on weekends.
“We’re a pretty small place, and we do see the deer on almost a daily basis,” Freeway’s Andrew Powers said. “Because we’re small, we really don’t have the ability to put up a big fence around the property.”
Powers could recall one serious collision with a deer in the eight years he has manned the front counter at Freeway. He said pilots usually are on the lookout for deer before they take off and land.
“If we’ve seen a couple of deer, we’ll give them a heads-up that they’re around,” he said. “They do get hit every once in a while. In most of the incidents I know about, we’ve been very lucky. The planes have not been damaged much at all. The deer weren’t so lucky.”