The control tower at Fairchild Air Force Base radios David Knutson to maneuver a little to the south.
Prepare for a possible air strike, he’s told.
While a huge refueling tanker throttles to life, Knutson drives down an old runway in his battered pickup, a peregrine falcon at his side.
Once parked, he lifts a hand-tooled leather hood from the falcon’s head and releases her to the heavens.
She scatters a flock of sea gulls hanging near the tarmac and returns to rest on Knutson’s rawhide glove.
Mission accomplished, radios the control tower.
Airspace cleared of sea gulls.
Prepare for takeoff.
Humans may be piloting the planes at Fairchild, but they depend on falcons to keep them aloft and alive.
Each year, the U.S. Air Force spends $20 million repairing planes damaged by sea gulls and other birds that get sucked into jet engines.
Fairchild spends between $50,000 and $75,000 a year on repairs, says Jerry Johnson, environmental engineer at the base. Last year, base planes had 30 run-ins with wayward birds.
Just one sea gull sucked into an engine can do up to $8,000 damage, Johnson says.
Although the consequences are deadlier, sucking up a bird in a plane is similar to a vacuum cleaner swallowing a sock. The motor quits.
Two years ago at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, Alaska, an AWACS surveillance plane ingested a flock of geese on takeoff. Twenty-four people were killed when the plane lost power and crashed.
“The tower people watch all the time for flocks of geese. Radar can’t pick them up,” says Fairchild base spokeswoman Lt. Amy Hulten.
Ron Petersen, Fairchild’s chief of airfield management, at first was skeptical about using falcons to scatter geese, sea gulls and other birds.
Now he’s a believer.
Fairchild and Scott Air Force Base in Illinois are the only two bases in the country using the predatory birds. Both programs are in their first year.
“Falcons increase our mission readiness,” Petersen says. “We run a lot of refueling tankers out of here. We run a tight schedule. If we need to refuel a flight somewhere over the ocean, we can’t delay the schedule.”
Falcons help Fairchild with its long-standing bird problem. Its runways sit next to 1,000 acres of federally protected wetlands that draw hundreds of geese, ducks, sea gulls and red-tailed hawks. Because the base needs special permits from the state Fish and Wildlife Department to shoot the birds, they’ve had to look for other alternatives.
Johnson says they’ve tried propane cannons, 12-gauge shotguns and an occasional dead duck left in the grass as a warning.
But nothing works as well as falcons - one of nature’s most effective avian predators.
Since David Knutson’s two falcons started working at Fairchild in May, base officials haven’t had to fire a shot.
Last season, before the falcons arrived, they had to kill 14 ducks and two geese.
Knutson says the falcons are effective because peregrines are the fastest animals in the world with wing spans of up to 2-1/2 feet. In a dive they can hit speeds of up to 240 miles per hour. They strike their prey in mid-air with talons as sharp as Swiss Army knives.
Although their instincts are to kill, Knutson’s falcons only chase the birds at the base. They rely on him for food, which is why they return when he whistles. Even so, they’re equipped with radio transmitters - in case they set out on a lark, which has happened.
“They’re not domesticated,” says Knutson, a licensed falconer. “These are real wild birds.”
Knutson’s falcons - a peregrine and a gyrfalcon - will work five days a week, eight hours a day at Fairchild until the end of August when the migratory bird season is over. Because they’re called into action several times a day, he keeps the falcons in top condition.
“I weigh them five or six times a day to the gram. Like any athlete, I have to keep them in shape,” he says.
When his falcons are working, their movements are constantly monitored by air traffic control - like any aircraft in flight.
“We coordinate very carefully with the control tower,” says Petersen, airfield manager. “We don’t want his falcon up chasing birds if there’s an aircraft coming in for landing.”
When the falcons aren’t flying, they’re hooded and tethered to leather jesses that Knutson makes himself. The hoods, like blinders on a horse, keep the birds calm while they’re out on the noisy runways.
Environmental engineers at both Fairchild and Scott are hoping to extend the falcon programs next year, but it will depend on budget priorities.
Fairchild’s falcon program costs $20,000 to run.
“We usually devote about 1-1/2 people to the bird problem,” Johnson says. “By using the falcon we’ve freed a lot of their time up for other things.”
“This is an environmentally good way to control the problem,” Knutson says. “They don’t have to go out there and shoot birds, some of which are endangered species.”
As he talks, Knutson strokes the tightly napped feathers of his peregrine.
She flaps her wings and tries to fly. The leash stops her and she swings to the ground like a floppy yo-yo.
“She’s in the ‘I want to fly and I want to chase mode,”’ he says.
“She’s a very nice lady, but she’s working right now.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: See related story under the headline: One falcon can turn flock away