Gulls called airport ‘threat’ after recent collisions

Gulls called airport ‘threat’ after recent collisions

10:55 AM, Nov. 2, 2011 |
Written by John Briggs and Zach Despart

The presence of birds, including flocks of gulls that moved to the St. Michael’s College compost area east of Vermont 15 after the compost operation in the Intervale closed, has created a safety issue for planes at Burlington International Airport.
“In the last two weeks, there have been five … confirmed bird strikes with gulls by aircraft operating in and out of the Burlington Airport,” interim Director of Aviation Robert McEwing wrote to South Burlington City Manager Sandy Miller on Monday.

Airport Operations Director Rick Varney in a Tuesday night interview clarified information on the bird strikes. He said that eight occurred in the month of October, all involving civilian aircraft. One of the strikes was determined to be caused by a gull, while the other seven involved smaller birds, such as sparrows and wood thrushes, Varney said.

Varney said he issued a Notice to Airmen, or “NOTAM” to all pilots Oct. 13, after airport staff observed gulls close to runways.

McEwing said in his email to Miller that the birds represent “a serious safety issue” and “a threat to aircraft operations. This is a critical issue that we all need to work on to get under control.” McEwing said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening that Burlington Airport normally doesn’t have many bird strikes.

The airport has worked with St. Michaels College, the Vermont Air National Guard and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a plan to deal with the birds. The plan involves the use of devices that make noise and emit flashes of light.
St. Michael’s communications director Buff Lindau said the college has now covered its compost area and has seen the number of gulls diminish. “We have granted them permission to do what they must to control them,” she said, “except shoot them.”

McEwing said Fred Pogmore, a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist, wrote twice to South Burlington asking for whatever city waiver was needed to use the devices to move the gulls. McEwing wrote the city again on Monday urging prompt action.

Miller told the Free Press in an email Tuesday that he has been in touch with Pogmore and McEwing. “My staff are telling me they had not heard about this issue until late last week,” he said, “and neither had I. The safety of the traveling public is our primary concern.”

He said that use of pyrotechnics “may or may not be covered by local or state statute and without knowing in more detail what is involved (and what isn’t), we can’t provide more guidance at this point.”

He said Pogmore and McEwing need to talk to the South Burlington police and fire chiefs to find out if the USDA approach “is permissible and acceptable.”

Miller said the city’s firearms ordinance prohibits firing a weapon outside of airport limits and perhaps on airport property. “Therefore,” he wrote, “the ordinance would have to be changed by City Council to permit such an exemption (outside of airport property and, possibly, inside of airport property.)”

He said airport and USDA representatives should attend the City Council meeting Nov. 7, “to introduce the discussion and provide additional information.” The city, he said, “will want to know what, when, where and how USDA and BIA will be proposing to address the situation.”

South Burlington City Council Chairwoman Sandra Dooley said she learned of the issue Monday and said she doubts the city has “the information it needs to act. I think you need to be explicit,” she said, “if you’re asking the government to respond in 24 hours. You need to make an explicit request if that’s what you need. I take it it’s been going on for awhile.”

Gene Richards, chairman of the Airport Commission, who has tangled recently with Miller over fees charged to the airport by South Burlington, said South Burlington should provide the permits quickly. “This is people’s lives we’re talking about,” Richards said.

Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow, spokesman for the Vermont Air National Guard, said the flocks are a “hazard” that “could cause a serious situation.”

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