Magazine article International Wildlife

When Birds Become Missiles

Magazine article International Wildlife

When Birds Become Missiles

Article excerpt

Yossi Leshem's mission in life is to keep feathered fliers and planes from colliding

September 7, 1997. An Israel Air Force F-16 fighter worth more than $20 million streaks low during training exercises above the Negev Desert. Suddenly a honey buzzard smashes through the windscreen. Because of the plane's 900-kilometer-per-hour (560-mph) speed, the bird hits with an impact of about 25 tons. Captain E and First Lieutenant G (their names are classified) bail out. The captain suffers only a broken nose, but the lieutenant's leg is later amputated.

August 10, 1995. While on a routine training mission, an F-15 Falcon going about 1,000 kilometers per hour (620 mph) collides with three migrating white storks. Two of them strike the jet's body and the third is sucked into the engine. Each three-kilo (6.6-lb.) bird hits with a force of about 40 tons. Within seconds, the $50 million jet erupts in flames, inverts and crashes into the Negev. Captain Ronen Lev, the pilot, and Captain Yaron Vivante, the navigator, are killed.

yossi leshem's eyes dance as his glider sails silently through the middle of a giant flock of migrating white storks. "The stork is a symbol of spring, of luck," the Israeli ornithologist says as he checks the glider's instruments. "But not if it hits a plane."

Keeping planes from hitting birds is what Les- hem's life is all about. And in Israel that is not an easy task. Every spring and fall more than half a billion birds from three continents funnel across this tiny nation about the size of New Jersey. During migration seasons, Israel has the highest concentration of birds per square kilometer of any country in the world. It also has the world's greatest concentration of fighter aircraft.

For Israeli Air Force pilots, who can cross the country in just 15 minutes, this juxtaposition can be fatal. Pilots flying at high speeds and low altitudes face much greater chances of colliding with migrating birds than being hit by hostile fire. In recent years, the Israel Air Force has lost more planes to bird strikes than to the combined might of enemy pilots or missiles. Since 1972, there have been 1,282 "bird hits" with fighter jets, 696 with helicopters and 637 with transport planes and light aircraft. In most cases, the pilots and planes managed to survive. The birds didn't.

Enter Leshem--the one person the Israel Air Force turns to for help. A hyperkinetic 50-year-old, whose uniform is usually jeans and sandals, Leshem is a busy PhD, former head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Endless days flying wingtip to wingtip with migrating birds, recording their behavior and flight paths, have helped make him a world-renowned authority on bird-plane strikes. Throughout Israel and abroad, he is known as "the bird-hit expert." In the quiet of the Israeli sky, Leshem glances at a compass to check the stork flock's direction. "Within an hour, these storks get used to the glider," he explains. With its motor off, the sleek craft--a two-seater--silently flies beside the birds as they soar in thermals, conserving energy by not beating their wings. He records the flock's migration route, altitude and progress rate on his tape recorder.

The bird problem, Leshem knows, is not limited just to Israel. Over the past 30 years, bird hits have killed 41 pilots and caused more than 130 fighter aircraft from 10 Western air forces to crash, and those numbers are only from nations that supply statistics. The yearly damage to the world's civilian and military aviation from birds is estimated at billions of dollars. It is impossible to get accurate figures because more than 70 percent of the world's bird strikes are never reported.

One notable military bird strike occurred in the United States in 1987. A Boeing AWACS meant to serve as a secret flying command post for the President in the event of nuclear war collided with a flock of about 40 snow geese shortly after takeoff from its base in Nebraska. …

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