Studying vultures to keep MacDill, aircraft safe

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Adam R. Shanks
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

During the winter months, tens of thousands of people flock to Florida to escape frigid temperatures in their home states.

However, the urge to seek warmer weather in the Sunshine State isn’t an idea exclusive to humans; feathery, talon-wielding scavengers like the sound of it too.

The team with the Air Force’s Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) program, a special program that aims to keep MacDill’s aircraft, Airmen and local wildlife safe, conducted a study on black vultures and turkey vultures seen throughout South Tampa.

“We decided to conduct a study on the vultures that frequent MacDill to better understand their flight patterns and migratory routes,” said Kory McLellan, the MacDill BASH program manager. “With an idea on how and when the vultures behave, we can anticipate activity much more accurately and prevent aircraft bird strikes from occurring.”

The Federal Aviation Administration ranks vultures as the second-most hazardous species to aircraft operations. Over a 20 year period, black vultures caused $75 million in damages to the Air Force. From January 1, 2015 to June 30, 2018, a total of 35,266 vultures were safely dispersed from MacDill’s airfield operations area.

“To better understand daily vulture movement and habit usage, we captured black vultures and turkey vultures to attach unique coded cattle ear-tag transponders to them,” said McLellan.

Based on the four vultures tagged, three black vultures stayed around the South Tampa area, while a lone turkey vulture migrated to southern Ohio for the summer. Once winter approached, this turkey vulture returned to Florida, crossing MacDill once again.

“The data we found coincided with data taken from MacDill in regards of harassment of vultures during the period between December 2016 and May 2018,” added McLellan. “However, during this time only 2,797 black vultures were harassed from the airfield compared to 18,816 turkey vultures in that time.”

McLellan and his team believe that this is due to black vultures being year-round residents of the MacDill area, and preferring the more urban, developed areas north of MacDill.

“Another possibility is that the black vultures, having been harassed multiple times, learned to avoid the airfield operations area,” remarked McLellan. “The turkey vulture we studied migrated to Ohio, returned to MacDill but also flew to southern and central Florida as well.”

After migrating, the turkey vultures fly back to Florida and tend to pass over MacDill in search of food. However, their search for food poses a huge risk to the KC-135 Stratotanker fleet especially during takeoffs and landings.

“The information that Kory and his team gathered goes into helping airfield management and aircrew understand the risks, and aid us in maintaining safety on all of the operations we conduct,” said Link Collier, 6th Operations Support Squadron airfield manager.

The vulture studies McLellan and his team does will be never ending, because of the migratory nature of turkey vultures.

“Since so many turkey vultures fly in and out of MacDill’s area, our harassment and dispersion techniques might be learned by a few birds, but they’ll be replaced by new birds the next day,” said McLellan. “It’s a constant cycle of scaring away these birds and making MacDill an annoying place for them to stay.”

By using a truck's horn, firing loud whistling flares or shooting pyrotechnics, McLellan and the BASH team patrol the airfield scaring away the wildlife to keep them out of harm's way.

Aircraft collisions with wildlife cause millions of dollars in damage annually resulting in the loss of combat capability. At MacDill, from 1990-2018, there have been four strikes with turkey vultures causing more than $179,000 in damages.

Wildlife strike hazards to aircrew and aircraft, as well as operations and maintenance expenditures, may be significantly reduced by utilizing an integrated pest management approach, resulting in substantial savings of Air Force resources.

“Our yearly salaries pale in comparison to the total cost some bird strikes cost to repair,” added McLellan. “Just by harassing the wildlife and keeping them out of the airfield, we’re able to save MacDill and the Air Force countless amounts of taxpayer dollars.”