Sound system clears the air, prevents aircraft collisions
April 25, 2008
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Call it “the scare wars.”
That’s what Barthell Joseph named his company’s cannons, the ones hyped and hoped to keep birds of a feather from colliding with birds of metal.
“Harassment, that’s the business we’re in,” Joseph said. “We harass birds by making noise.”
Joseph and colleague Marty Schoenheiter finished installing and testing 20 new cannons this week around Misawa’s flight line.
The software-based system uses radio signals to open a valve and release propane gas into a combustion chamber.
A spark plug sets off the boom, shot through a long tube that rotates in random directions for three minutes.
One cannon, a group or all of them can be triggered from a computer at base operations or remotely by a handheld device.
Joseph’s Greenville, Miss.-based company, Reed-Joseph, has installed cannons at an estimated 35 Air Force bases worldwide, said Schoenheiter, a computer communications expert from Salt Lake City.
Half a dozen of the cannons at Misawa also play high-frequency distress calls of six different bird species, courtesy of Cornell University’s School of Ornithology, according to Joseph.
But it’s no symphony.
Each cannon packs a terrific bang of 130 decibels. “Within 50 feet it will ring your bell,” says Schoenheiter, as ear plugs were passed out before a demonstration Wednesday.
One airman compared the sound to a howitzer.
The idea is to scare the birds — fast.
“You couldn’t call a falconer and get him out there in 20 seconds,” Schoenheiter said, while explaining the system to base ops airmen Wednesday. “Here, in just a few key strokes, you got these cannons going.”
Misawa invested $120,000 in the upgrade, a pittance compared with losing a $23 million fighter jet or a pilot in a bird-plane collision, officials say. A bird can get ingested into an engine, destroying it, or it can penetrate the jet canopy, killing the pilot, said Capt. Travis Higbee, 35th Fighter Wing chief of flight safety.
With a single-engine airplane like the F-16 flown at Misawa, “if it takes out the engine, you’re in trouble,” Higbee said.
Damage to a plane from a bird strike usually depends on how fast the jet is flying and the size of the bird, Higbee said. Last fiscal year, Misawa had four bird strikes, but no aircraft damage. “It was on approach, so the jet was not going very fast,” he said. And they were small birds.
The new cannons replace ones that were rusting and becoming ineffective. The parts couldn’t be fixed and only six were operable, Higbee said. The new ones are 10 decibels louder and use digital bird recordings; the old ones needed an occasional cassette tape replaced.
Still, the scare tactics are just one tool in keeping birds away from the flight line.
The base’s 16-member Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard Team, or BASH, shares two 12-gauge shotguns and rounds of lead BBs. It’s a last resort, but necessary for pesky birds who don’t heed the cannons.
“It’s very effective when you go out with a shotgun and [they see their] buddies die,” Higbee said.
With numerous ponds and lakes and the nearby ocean, the Misawa area is flush with birds, especially during the migratory seasons in fall and spring, said Master Sgt. John Cernucan, noncommissioned officer in charge of 35th Fighter Wing flight safety.
Ducks and hawks pose a nuisance on occasion, Higbee said. Crows are always an issue.
“They’re very quick to learn. They’re not afraid of you. They know whether you have a shotgun or not, the little buggers,” he said.