Israeli Air Force Fighter Pilots Dodge Migrating Storks

storks-migrate-israel-air-forceIsraeli Air Force Fighter pilots fear collisions with birds more than any other enemy. Birders keep them safe.

Droves of migrating birds strike a remarkable sight as they swirl above head in flocks of some 5,000 birds at a time over the Judean Desert. There are about seven hundred million birds flying over Israel twice every year during migration season, 600,000 of them white storks, explains Noam Attias.

Attias, a birdwatcher for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, is perched atop a rocky hilltop overlooking the Jordan River Valley. She is also a former air force air traffic controller.

A pilot’s nightmare

“When you see a pack of storks, even if it is small, or very, very big you see this mass of birds which are going up. Pelicans will do it in a very nice order. Storks will do it in all kinds of directions as they go up. And when they get to the top of this thermal that’s when they begin to glide. That is when they are in a really nice order and I can count them really easily and I can count them 10, 20, 30, 40 and so on,” says Attias.

On the edge of the Judean Desert, looking down on the sleepy town of Jericho, everything appears quite tranquil. But these are dangerous skies for Israeli fighter jets. The bird watcher’s delight is a pilot’s nightmare. Since the mid-1970’s, migrating buzzards, storks, pelicans and eagles have done more damage to Israeli fighter jets than all the Arab air forces combined.

This is due to Israel’s unique geographical and political predicament. It’s a tiny country with little air space, where one of the world’s biggest air forces flies right through what happens to be the main corridor for storks, pelicans and other birds of prey migrating from Europe and Asia to Africa and back every spring and fall. This “bottleneck” has fighter jets competing with birds over this very confined area.

Bird spotters, like Attias, monitor the flocks and relay the information to the air force. A special unit collects this information from her and others, adding it to their radar images to map out the areas jets should avoid.

Flock of intelligence

Earlier in the day, Attias said she saw two F-16 fighter jets zooming by in the valley below her and immediately radioed to the air force that flocks were in the area. This was unusual since the air force has altered its training to avoid colliding with the birds.

“It is very hard for the pilot to see a bird coming. It’s a very small thing. The plane is flying really, really fast and as it comes into a bird the impact of the hit with the bird will be a lot of times bigger than it really is because of the velocity and it will crash,” Attias says. “It is one of the things that frighten our pilots the most. More than any other big enemy, this small thing, even a very small bird can be a disaster for our pilots.”

Incredibly, it wasn’t until the early 1980’s that the Israeli air force recognized that they could do something about reducing jet-bird hits. Lt.-Col. (ret.) Danny Grossman was the safety specialist put in charge of the endeavor in 1982.

“When I took over there were 100 to 120 bird strikes a year, including some incredible accidents and crashes,” Grossman tells The Media Line. “Until then, a bird strike was viewed as an act of nature which there was nothing to do about it except get to a synagogue and pray.”

Grossman says the air force approached the bird issue as if it were a tactical problem similar to getting around enemy surface-to-air missiles and developed a doctrine to avoid them.

Strikes fell out of the sky

“If an aircraft is going 500 knots, or 800 miles-per-hour, then you are talking about a force of several tons,” Grossman says.

“We started gathering intelligence. We gave the birdwatchers a motorized glider and they helped us map out the migration routes,” Grossman says. “We were shocked to find out that the birds flew the same air corridors, at specific altitudes and on very specific days every year.”

A plan was devised to alter training schedules to avoid the bird flocks. It took about two years to kick in and the results were dramatic.

“The number of collisions didn’t just drop. It fell out of the sky!” Grossman says.

The air force reported a 76 percent reduction in bird strikes, which is estimated to have saved over half a billion dollars between 1984 and 2001.

Today there are about 20 hits a year, a statistic that has held steady for the past 16 years. There are still cracked wings, destroyed engines and worse.  But it’s been over a dozen years since the last aircraft crashed due to a bird hit.

The air force realized that it could neither ignore nor compete with nature and each fall and spring it gives the enormous flocks plenty of room.

“Sometimes you find yourself standing for more than an hour and counting storks. They don’t stop coming. I’m jealous. I am jealous of their ability to fly, ability to glide,” Attias says.

:: The Media Line

Other birding stories:

Jordan Combines Conservation and Tourism To Combat Environmental Woes

Man Arrested Attempting To Smuggle “Golden” Falcon Eggs

Dubai Is For The Birds (And The People Who Love Them)

image via hhhalberto

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3 thoughts on “Israeli Air Force Fighter Pilots Dodge Migrating Storks”

  1. Arlene Steinberg says:

    What a wonderful article in tribute to man’s ability to perceive a problem and do something positive for all sides to correct it. Apparently, however, only in Israel is nature so respected that the solution is to work with it instead of against it. Here in the United States, beautiful Canadian Geese and other birds are being gassed and/or shot because of the bird-strike issue, a problem that is being blown out of all proportion by our local and federal government agencies and they are waging a terror campaign scaring the public into believing that their safety in the air is only guaranteed if thousands of these birds are killed. Between mapping migration routes and re-routing planes, and use of bird radar (which is oddly NOT being used, even though a bird radar system called MERLIN exists), much of our problem could be solved, far better than inhumanely killing thousands of birds. I suppose the fact that the US Dept. of Agriculture, which is going around promoting itself as the authority on bird population control, pockets a ton of money for killing the birds, might have something to do with this.

  2. hrf says:

    Decades in plural like “1980s”, shouldn’t have an apostrophe as there is no ownership or contraction. There is little room for confusion if you remove it.

    1. Thanks Henry. Won’t you direct this to The Media Line, where the article first appeared?

      The Media Line

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