Driving around the U.S.’s largest military base in Afghanistan with Paul Edlund feels like an Alfred Hitchcock film: You’re constantly on the lookout for birds.
The one-time Air Force munitions airman is now a wildlife biologist with the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, completing a four-month tenure that has put him in charge of the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard, or BASH, program at the base.
His primary task is to prevent aircraft from hitting birds, which can damage equipment, injure servicemembers and impact the mission. The job is seen as critical for safety, and could become even more significant as U.S. air operations in Afghanistan are set to grow this year and likely add to traffic at the already busy base.
“It’s important to be out here all the time because there are planes taking off all the time,” Edlund said during a recent patrol of the air field in a beat-up Ford F-350 pickup. A copy of Birds of Central Asia was tucked near the driver’s seat.
It was one of multiple patrols Edlund does each day. When he spots birds near the flight line he has several pyrotechnic noisemakers at his disposal to scare them away. They’re shot out of guns of varying length, heights and sounds. “Screamers,” one of the lowest-shooting, sound like a high-pitched deflating balloon.
According to Bagram officials, over 345,000 animals — mostly birds but also mammals like jackals, rabbits, cats and dogs — were chased off the airfield last year.
Statistically, engines — and particularly the fan blades — sustain the highest percentage of damage among aircraft components due to bird ingestion, although windshields, radomes and wing roots are also frequently hit.
The seriousness of bird strikes to aircraft was highlighted in 2009, when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York after it hit a flock of geese, causing both engines to lose power.
To prevent similar incidents, each U.S. military base has a BASH program in which flight safety officers shoo away menacing wildlife.
But only some are led by trained biologists like Edlund, who better understand bird behavior and are able to modify base habitats to make them less attractive to birds, providing a more enduring solution to bird strikes.
One initiative underway at Bagram is the removal of crumbling concrete structures built by the Soviets in the 1980s. They’re overgrown with vegetation, which provides cover to mice and small animals hunted by large birds.
Edlund normally works in Michigan as a wildlife biologist with the Department of Agriculture. While winter is a more exciting time for biologists in Michigan compared to Bagram — he mentioned this year’s “snowy owl explosion” back home several times during his patrol — he’s happy to be in Afghanistan, where he feels like he’s contributing to the U.S. mission, despite the seasonal lull in bird activity.
“I like working with the military … It’s a different mindset,” said Edlund, who was stationed in Japan and South Korea before leaving the service as an E-4.
“I had no idea any of this stuff was going on then,” he added, referring to BASH work. “I would love to get back to Japan and do this. That would be interesting.”
The Department of Agriculture has been sending biologists like Edlund to Bagram since 2008 to help reduce the impact of wildlife on aircraft. As the program has matured, there has been a decrease in damaging bird strikes.
In 2015, the 455th AEW saw over $200,000 worth of damages from the strikes. Last year, the damages totaled less than $36,000. Most occurred at Bagram, although the wing also operates in Kandahar and Jalalabad.
“It’s incredibly rewarding because every mishap that we prevent is a combat ready airman or combat ready piece of equipment,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Congdon, the 455th AEW’s chief of safety.
However, during peak migrations periods in the spring and fall, Bagram still sees about one bird strike per day, Congdon said.
In light of an uptick in U.S. air activity in Afghanistan, an additional biologist position is being created at Kandahar Air Field, which Edlund recently visited to provide recommendations.
Edlund will likely be back home by the time that position is filled, but he hopes his work in Afghanistan will continue to help the mission after he leaves.
“I definitely feel like I’m making a difference,” he said as the sun started to set during his patrol. “It’s not busy right now, but I can get things set up for the people coming after me.”
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