While bird strikes on commercial airplanes capture headlines, Karen VanWinkle, manager of the Arlington Municipal Airport, is focused on a lesser-known ground threat — coyotes that run onto the runway and taxi lanes.
The problems scamper in mostly from Fish Creek, which winds through a thicket of mesquite trees and brush on the south end of the 500-acre airport. A plan to thwart those invasions is in the works, VanWinkle said.
The city has requested a Federal Aviation Administration grant of roughly $1.2 million to install wildlife-resistant fencing, part of the agency’s requirement that smaller airports do more to protect themselves from collisions with birds and land animals.
VanWinkle said the funding, from an FAA block grant allocated by the Texas Department of Transportation, would cover about 90 percent of the cost of not only barricading the creek area but also replacing the decades-old fencing on the rest of the airport perimeter.
But because the timing of the funding is uncertain, construction could be two years away.
“We want to fence the creek out,” she said, “and let the critters keep the creek, and the airport will keep the aircraft.”
Animal incursions at airports — as well as residential subdivisions and other places rife with human activity — are not new. Urban encroachment on natural wildlife habitats forces many creatures to find new shelter and hunting grounds closer to where people live and work, wildlife experts say.
The Arlington airport, on Collins Street south of Interstate 20, opened in a vast undeveloped territory in 1962 that has experienced much growth since. But parts of the airport still border large green spaces.
VanWinkle said she hasn’t noticed an increase in critter incursions in recent years, or a recent increase in road or subdivision construction that would cause it.
But the status quo has produced enough coyotes to be a problem, one that VanWinkle and crew have dealt with the best way they could — chasing them in trucks, yelling and honking.
It’s not real high-tech, but that’s the only way we’ve got.
Airport manager Karen VanWinkle on chasing animals off the runway
“It’s not real high-tech, but that’s the only way we’ve got,” VanWinkle said.
The strategy isn’t much more sophisticated for dispersing flocks of birds that gather in grassy areas and around little ponds of rain runoff, a task required by the Federal Aviation Administration. VanWinkle said she has been studying another bird-dispersing option — using a dog trained to break break up bird flocks on the ground.
Grass across all unpaved areas of the airport is kept trimmed to about 12 inches, tall enough that birds might become leery about hidden predators and choose not to land. When that mind game doesn’t work, the noisemaking trucks are unleashed.
Miracle on the Hudson
VanWinkle said those measures were once just informal and operational requirements of the airport.
“But now, basically after the ‘Miracle on the Hudson,’ ” she said, the FAA “said no, you need to have a plan.”
She was referring to the incident involving US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who safely landed his plane in New York’s Hudson River in 2009 after striking a flock of geese and losing power to both engines. All 155 people aboard survived.
The FAA viewed the incident more as the near-Catastrophe on the Hudson. The agency responded by stepping up efforts — and funding — to get more airports to commission wildlife hazard assessments and then wildlife hazard management plans, which outline potential controls like fences, bird dispersal tactics and reduction of food and water sources, the FAA said in response to questions from the Star-Telegram.
Aircraft collisions with wildlife — 97 percent with birds — have been a problem for the FAA since long before Sullenberger’s heroics, dramatized in the movie Sully starring Tom Hanks.
From 1990 to 2015, the agency recorded 177,269 wild-animal strikes on civil aircraft. The growth rate was 38 percent from 2009 to 2015.
A search of the FAA’s Wildlife Strike database shows 289 instances of plane collisions with animals — again, all but 3 percent were birds — at Texas airports in 2016. According to the data base, the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport accounted for 117 animal strikes, and one incident at the Arlington Municipal Airport was reported this year, on April 17, involving a Gulfstream V jet and one or more barn swallows. The plane was not damaged.
The adaptable coyote
Nationally, coyotes are among the most frequent nondeer land animals that stray onto runways, a list that also includes turtles, skunks and alligators, according to the FAA website.
The Arlington airport, with its 6,080-foot runway, provides plenty of opportunity for collisions. It hosts an average of 250 takeoffs and landings daily, about 91,000 a year, VanWinkle said.
The Addison Airport, which opened in 1957 and averages about 100,000 operations annually, built a perimeter fence — not technically a wildlife fence — decades ago, as much to keep out unauthorized people as animals, airport director Joel Jenkinson said.
In its heavily urban environment, even the highly adaptable coyote is rare, but a few jackrabbits and skunks get in the airfield, he said.
“The problem with jackrabbits is they attract hawks,” he said, and maybe one or two coyotes a year.
At DFW Airport, wildlife administrator Cathy Boyles and a crew of about three dozen patrol the 6,900 acres of “turf,” where air operations take place. They charge into flocks of birds in pickups with horns and sirens as well as hand-held noisemakers like pistol-fired cartridges of “bangers and screamers.”
“We have staff on the airfield 24/7 for bird dispersal” and related tasks, Boyles said. “We have fluctuating challenges, like mourning doves and pigeons — they’re everywhere trying to find food, etc. … Fortunately our most common birds are the smaller birds.”
Boyles was glad to hear that the Arlington airport is going after a grant for wildlife fencing.
“There are many things airports can use in their toolbox,” she said. “I think that a fence is probably the most important.”
Arlington Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon said containing the animal threat is a priority.
“I know it’s a danger,” said Wilemon, who heads the council subcommittee that includes airport oversight among its tasks. “When you have a plane landing, you don’t want to have critters running around. But it’s good that we are at least identifying any problems that are going on there, that we need to be aware of.’
With FAA funding, the city brought in a biologist to tailor a wildlife management plan for its airport.
“Birds are always a concern,” VanWinkle said. “But specifically, our biologist who prepared our wildlife plan cited ingress and egress of coyotes as being an issue.”
A major part of that plan is the wildlife fencing. The city plans to use a FAA-approved chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire, VanWinkle said. A 4-foot chain-link “skirt” would be buried beneath the vertical fence to prevent burrowing under it.
VanWinkle expects the fence to block 80 to 90 percent of animal incursions.
“But you’re never going to totally eliminate wild animals,” she said.
Arlington Municipal Airport
Runway: 6,080-foot runway
Operations: 250 takeoffs and landings daily, about 91,000 a year