Sea-Tac Airport focused on bird safety long before ‘Sully’ movie hit theaters



Long before the “Miracle on the Hudson” became a national story and now turned into a movie, the Port of Seattle took the lead to address the issue of airplane and bird safety at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The movie “Sully” premiered this past weekend, focusing on the untold story of the 2009 incident where a US Airways plane struck a flock of geese while taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood, the movie gives us a close view of how the plane successfully landed on the Hudson River after Canada geese shutdown both engines on the plane, an extremely rare situation.

With Sea-Tac Airport being located near the Puget Sound, airport leaders knew long ago a proactive approach was needed to keep both airplanes and neighborhoods around the airport as safe as possible. That’s why 40 years ago, the airport started a first of its kind wildlife hazard management program in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Today, Sea-Tac has two full-time wildlife biologists who work closely with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Wildlife Services and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as other agencies to maximize safety now while working to reduce future risks.

What does this program mean for people who live near Sea-Tac?

“The long-standing priority of the airport’s wildlife program is to maintain safe air travel for the public,” said Sea-Tac Airport Wildlife Biologist Steve Osmek. “We also recognize that it’s possible to coexist with some species of wildlife as well by modifying the habitat near the runways so wildlife, especially geese and other flocking birds, aren’t attracted to the airfield.”

The chance of an airplane hitting a bird at Sea-Tac is rare. In 2015, there were more than 380,000 takeoffs and landings with only 64 reported bird strikes. Ninety percent of those strikes casued no damage to the aircraft and resulted in only a few delayed flights.

In 2007 Sea-Tac became the first airport in the U.S. to use avian radar, to search the skies for hazardous bird activity 24-hrs a day. The two specialized radar systems are constantly monitoring out to more than a mile from the airfield, searching for potentially hazardous bird activity. Just last month the radar was upgraded to give a 3-D view of bird activity directly above the airfield.

In 2012, Sea-Tac became the world’s first airport to have bird radar alerts automatically sent to airfield personnel equipped with pyrotechnics and other devices to scare birds away from the airport.

“Like weather radar, information gained from avian radar on bird movements has been extremely valuable in understanding when and where bird hazards are highest each day and when and where hazards may be present in the next day,” Osmek said. “In 2016, a new 3-D bird radar system was installed to learn more about when and where near miss events are occurring. This information can be used to better inform airfield personnel, air traffic controllers, and eventually the pilots of persistent bird issues.”

The Port also takes an active role in relocating birds, especially birds of prey (raptors) which pose a risk to aviation safety. Each spring young red-tailed hawks are removed from the nest and transported north to Skagit County where they are raised until they can hunt for themselves. The agricultural lands of the Skagit River Valley, including Fir Island, has an abundance of small mammals and other prey.

The older hawks are also relocated to this same area but these birds are marked with a yellow or blue wing marker to help observers better understand their movements. If you are able to see one of these wing-tagged red-tailed hawks, the Port is very interested in knowing where you saw the bird. Please email [email protected] and let the Port know the location, tag color, what wing of the bird the tag was seen on, and the letter or number that is printed on it.

Like the movie “Sully” shows, airports have unique challenges to keep travelers and nearby residents safe. While there is no way an airport can guarantee birds will never come near aircraft, Sea-Tac has led the way to keep travelers and communities around the airport as safe as possible while enhancing the area’s wildlife.

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