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Birds of the air stake a claim in the airspace

By | Jun 25th 2010 | 4 min read
By | June 25th 2010

By Ally Jamah

In February 2007, a Kenya Airways Boeing plane carrying hundreds of passengers ran into trouble immediately after take off from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

The pilots and air-traffic controllers struggled to return the plane safely on the ground and they succeeded eventually.

Investigations later revealed that a large bird — a well-fed marabou stork — had been sucked into one of the plane’s engines and cut into pieces, disabling it. The bird was on the runway when it was sucked in.

Meshak Yegon demonstrates the special solar-powered siren used to scare birds away from the airport.

Even though no lives were lost, the damage to the engine cost Kenya Airways a whooping Sh400 million to repair. Further, the plane was grounded for almost one year— incurring losses running into billions in lost business.

Harm’s Way

The list of such accidents in Kenya and other parts of the world is long. Even the developed countries are not out of harm’s way as birds often get in their planes’ flight-paths.

And there are no safeguards to entirely secure the airways from birds of air.

Sometimes a bird may crash into the windscreen of speeding aircraft and crack it. This could send the plane into a sudden loss of cabin pressure, making it difficult for passengers to breath.

"Many people don’t realise that birds pose a serious risk to planes. It requires endless precautions to prevent accidents, " says George Amutete, the Wildlife Control Officer at the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA).

Amutete’s job is to prevent plane accidents caused by birds in Kenya’s main airports and has an annual budget of Sh30 million and 26 staff.

Amutete and his team work in the background to prevent a repeat of the 2007 incident and others that preceded it.

Since KAA completed building Sh100 million fence around JKIA last year, threats from wild animals have been significantly reduced, but not eliminated altogether.

In fact, risks from birds remains unchanged since they easily fly over the fence. It does not help matters that birds prefer the grassy fields beside JKIA runway, where they settle to prey of insects.

Birds never learn

"We are not allowed to kill the birds. Otherwise the Kenya Wildlife Service would be on our case. We only have the option of chasing them away. The birds will never learn that they are not welcome in our airports, " Amutete chuckles.

Of all the eight airports that Amutete team manages, JKIA presents the biggest challenge. It is not only the busiest in East and Central Africa, it also experiences a lot bird movement, enhancing the risks of accidents.

"JKIA is just next to the Nairobi National Park where thousands of birds of various species make a home. We are also close to the Dandora dumpsite, which attracts hundreds of scavenging birds. We cannot afford to relax," he says.

Yegon uses a catapult. [PHOTOS: JONAH ONYANGO/STANDARD]

Amutete says his team start work by 5am ahead of airport rush hour that starts at 6.30am and runs through 9.30am.

"We move up and down the four-kilometre runway with our weapons to scare away birds that like coming to airport to catch the early worm. This goes on for the rest of the day, " says Meshack Yegon, who serves in the Wildlife Control Office.

Low Technology

The "weapons" that Yegon alludes to are catapults — the sort that Biblical David used to fell Goliath, and used by children and young adults to hunt for birds in rural Kenya.

Catapults release stones that pick speed from their elastic frame. It is low-tech but very effective in scaring away bird gatherings.

"We also use solar-powered sound projectors that emit high-pitched bursts of noise meant to scare aware birds in the vicinity. It is mounted at the back of the patrol car," explains Yegon.

The past two months have been especially torturous to Amutete and his team as it is the breeding season and birds over fly the airport in search of mates.

"The source of this problem is the Dandora dumpsite which serves as a reliable source of food for the birds. But to get there they first have to cross JKIA. This is very worrying," said Amutete.

KAA is pushing the Nairobi City Council to relocate the dumpsite far from the airport to at least 13 kilometres away, as stipulated in the International Civil Aviation Organisation guidelines.

But KAA does not think Ruai, the proposed site of future dumpsite, is a viable option.

"We still oppose plans by NCC to shift the dumpsite to Ruai since flights from the airport will continue to be at risk from birds in the dumpsite," Amutete says, explaining that Ruia is in their flight path.

Men And Machines

For now, the birds of air are free to fly over the Kenya airspace, oblivious to the dangers they occasion men and machines competing for use of the same space.

Then there is the tricky issue of compensation as insurance agents could decide to list birds among "acts of God," which means their presence in the air, and the resultant accidents are unavoidable disasters.





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