Doves proving problematic for military pilots

getimageSan Antonio Express-News

A booming dove population coupled with rapid community expansion is creating significant risk around military aircraft training facilities in San Antonio, according to commanders.

As many as 10,000 white-winged doves fly across the south end of the runway at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph every day during the summer, said Air Force Col. Matthew Isler, commander of the 12th Flying Training Wing.

“Our pilots are still experiencing a high number of damaging strikes on takeoff,” Isler said. “This has the potential to have devastating consequences if residential building takes place on the south end of Randolph’s runways.”

Financial consequences also are increasing.

In 2011, damage to aircraft caused by birds totaled about $330,000, said Maj. James Powell at JBSA-Randolph. The annual cost has since quadrupled, Powell said, mainly due to the white-winged doves. The birds are attracted to the heavily wooded areas around Randolph and to the trees planted in new subdivisions that are getting ever closer to the base’s buffer zone.

To help address the problem, state Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, has introduced two bills designed to slow community expansion near the bases. One would notify buyers about the risks of living too close to military installations, and the other would ensure that Joint Base San Antonio — which includes Randolph, Lackland, Fort Sam Houston and Camp Bullis — is made aware of potential development plans in their areas.

That could help reduce home-building encroachment into the bases’ buffer zones, which is one of the main reasons there are more birds in the area. The birds roost in tree canopies.

“Obviously, everyone love trees, especially in the summertime, but it does create a problem in the Air Force base and potentially the people around it,” said Shaun Oldenburger, migratory shore and upland game bird program leader at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Oldenburger said the department has worked with JBSA-Randolph in the past on environmentally friendly habitat changes to help reduce the thousands of birds that fly across the runway.

About 85 percent of the white-winged dove population in the country can be found in Texas, the game bird expert said, and the San Antonio metropolitan area is considered one of the largest birding areas in the state.

JBSA-Randolph’s Powell said the base began a habitat reduction program in 2014. The entire program costs $1.8 million, but Powell said the yearly cost to sustain it will decrease once the habitat is reduced to a manageable level.

“The tree canopy that provided the birds protection is being trimmed, the water retention ponds drained and the birds dispersed using pyrotechnics and noisemakers,” Powell said. “The intent is to get the birds to move away.”

It’s not only military pilots who have problems with birds.

More than 1,000 bird strikes were reported at public airports across Texas in 2014, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. But such strikes are rarely a problem at San Antonio International Airport because of flat, cleared land around the runways, according to spokeswoman Evelyn Bailey.

Brig. Gen. Robert Labrutta, commander of the 502nd Air Base Wing and JBSA, said compatible growth in San Antonio is key to ensuring that the bases are protected from encroachment.

“Unfortunately, over the course of the past few years, we have seen some unconstrained growth,” Labrutta said.

Farias’ House Bill 1639 would require sellers to inform potential buyers about the increased risk of plane crashes and the high levels of aircraft noise that comes with buying property near a runway. A paragraph about the risks and discomfort would be added to the real-estate property disclosure form.

“Protection like this one will provide a safeguard for buyers and provide transparency in the purchase of property,” Farias said at a committee hearing last week.

The Defense Department notes that the buffer area at the end of a runway, expanding 3,000 feet wide and 3 miles past the strip, should not have any fixed structures in the area because of the high risk of accidents. Between 1968 and 1995, 27 percent of accidents that happened around an airfield occurred in that area, according to the Pentagon.

According to Isler, the 12th Flying Training Wing commander, there is substantial residential development in areas north of Randolph, with some homes in the clear zones that extend 3,000 feet off the departure end of each runway. There is little residential development to the south of Randolph, which makes up 80 percent of takeoff and landing operations.

Kelly Flanagan, associate counsel for the Texas Association of Realtors, said the group supports the legislation but would like to see it mandated statewide and implemented Jan. 1, 2016, to give the Texas Real Estate Commission time to update the seller’s disclosure forms.

HB 1640, Farias’ second bill on the issue, would require affected municipalities to meet with defense base authorities regarding proposed rules, ordinances or structures that may affect base operations.

The House Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Committee left the two bills pending last week.

Twitter: @nicolecobler



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