Migration watch saves Israeli jets from bird strike

TEL AVIV Wed Dec 1, 2010 1:06pm EST

1 of 3. Migrating white pelicans swim in the water at the Hula Valley Nature Reserve, north of the Sea of Galilee, northern Israel November 11, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Krumenacker

TEL AVIV (Reuters Life!) - "Every instrument that could give bad news did: cracking metal, all alarms ringing," former Israeli Air Force pilot Israel Baharav said.

"I didn't need instruments to tell me the engine was gone and I was now sitting in a piece of scrap metal that had been a brand new fighter plane just seconds before."

Baharav ejected and survived to learn that what he had experienced was a devastating bird strike, a hazard for military and civilian air traffic that destroys planes and kills pilots across the skies, but most particularly in the sky over Israel.

The Jewish state combines one of the world's biggest air forces, busy commercial aviation traffic, a tiny air space and a surprising discovery about the natural world.

What nobody knew on that warm and clear February day in 1973 when Baharav took off to lead a training flight was that Israel, due to its location at the junction of Europe, Africa and Asia, is one of the busiest bird migration routes on the globe.

From 1990 to 2000 130 fighter aircraft from the air forces of 10 countries alone crashed and 41 pilots were killed due to collisions with birds, according to International Bird Strike Committee, an expert group on military and civil flight safety.

But the high incidence of bird strike risk over Israel was only unveiled after the Israeli Air Force began working with ornithologists to understand why incidents like the one Baharav experienced happened so often.

"When we started cooperation with the ornithologists we knew very little. We were aware of birds out there but the scale was completely unknown," said Asaf Agmon, head of the Israeli Air Force Association's Fisher Institute for flight security.

Researchers discovered that no less than an estimated 500 million birds cross the tiny country twice a year, once on their way to wintering grounds mostly in Africa from breeding grounds in Europe and Russia and then back the other way in spring.

It's paradise for bird-lovers but perilous for pilots.

"Of some bird species, like the globally endangered Lesser Spotted Eagle, virtually every bird that exists of this species is a visitor to Israel twice a year," says Professor Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University's Dept. of Zoology.

"And yes, I do mean the entire world population," said Leshem, who helped initiate the joint research.

Large birds in flocks are especially dangerous for aviation.

About 80 percent of all White Storks in the world pass over Israel. The heavy birds can have an impact equivalent of more than 40 tones in a collision depending on the speed of the jet.

According to Data published earlier this week 800,000 storks flew over Israel between August and the end of September.

In order to cope with this traffic jam in the skies over the Holy Land, in recent years a complex flight information system for all big birds has been designed to avoid collisions.

"Take care. We share the air," is the motto of present-day Israeli Defense Force courses on nature protection.

During the entire migration period from August to October a network of ground observers -- volunteer ornithologists with binoculars and telescopes -- is deployed every 2.5 km (1.553 miles) across the entire width of the country.

They count the birds flying over, log species, altitude and direction, and alert the authorities of big concentrations.

These volunteer "flight-controllers" are supported by counts from glider planes. Leshem says he has even used an Israeli military drone for the first time to research bird migration.

Together with the results of radar and satellite tracking of several bird species, an exact and up-to-the-minute information network can be established.

"Now we have exact maps and act accordingly," Agmon said.

(Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Paul Casciato)

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