The hunt on Fairchild's airfield

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joshua Chapman
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

In the morning, when the ambient cast of the horizon is toned warm red, you'll likely find Steven Benson and Dave Knutson perusing Fairchild's airfield. One of the men is heavily armed with a barrage of cannons, a menacing looking twelve-gauge shotgun and an impressive pellet gun equipped with a massive sniper sight; the other gentleman is armed with a voracious falcon, continuously on the lookout for its next prey. Together the two men provide mission critical support against the most unlikely combatant: Spokane's local wildlife.


Mr. Benson and Mr. Knutson are part of a much larger program at Fairchild called BASH, or Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard avoidance program. Between the two, Fairchild's air space stays pleasantly safe.


Mr. Benson and Mr. Knutson are the only people authorized on Fairchild to disturb local wildlife, dually responsible for deciding when to use lethal force.


But Mr. Benson emphatically pointed out that "depredation is the last option, and is typically directed only at pigeons and starlings," two birds that arguably overpopulate our planet. "Most often we sound the air cannons or fire off some pyrotechnics to scare them away, which works extremely well.   

"Besides my work with pest control for the base, the primary mission for both me and the Falconer is to minimize animal population on Fairchild airfield... This includes birds, like pigeons or red tail [hawks]; ground rodents, such as squirrels; and even large breed animals, like deer and coyote," he continued.


Mr. Benson demonstrated his prowess while in a hanger located adjacent to the 92nd Logistic Readiness Squadron. The shotgun held confidently against his chest, with his left eye slightly squinting and his right eye darting to the raptors above our heads, he aimed and shot a flurrying pigeon. It toppled to the ground, and with a final shot, the bird laid dead.


He collected the carcass and brought it back to his truck. "The bird won't go to waste...we use the remnants as food for Dave's birds," he explained, referring to Mr. Knutson's carnivorous falcons.


Similarly, Mr. Knutson can be found throughout the day, scouting the trenches surrounding the flight line with one or more of his magnificently trained falcons. The Falconers' mission-predominately exercised by Mr. Knutson and occasionally by his apprentice, Joel Knutson (no relation), is to "eliminate damaging bird strikes, and to reduce or mitigate non-damaging bird strikes."


Two words best describe this incredible raptor: remarkable beast. Its beautiful talons and poignantly sharp, curvilinear beak seem to pierce one's mind. It's no small wonder that other birds are so intimidated by this creature.


So how important is the BASH program to Fairchild's mission?


According to Tech. Sgt. Joe Pierce, 92nd Air Refueling Wing flight safety superintendent, Fairchild boasts one of the cleanest safety records for bird related incidents in the Air Force, and it's all thanks to this BASH program.


"With the exception of a single $130 damage incident, Fairchild has incurred no other costs from bird related accidents since 2005," said Sergeant Pierce. "The BASH program is extended to include many more measures than what Dave and Steve do. Through netting flight line water spaces and adding 'bird-balls,' the BASH program has been able to minimize bird population even more."


Col. Roger Watkins, acting 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander, in a memorandum Feb. 1, stressed the importance of the BASH program. He wrote, "Bird strikes are a very serious problem and require continuous vigilance by everyone involved in the flying business. Annually, the Air force receives nearly 2,600 reports of bird strikes and sustains damage estimated at $40 million."


Clearly, each bird poses an unmistakable threat to the other. The larger, fuel-based types threaten the lives of both migratory and resident birds; while the relative Lilliputian of the skies places both U.S. property and crewmembers in jeopardy--truly a risk not to be taken lightly.


Evidentially, reminisce back to a tragedy that occurred at Elmendorf Air Force Base on Sept. 22, 1995. At 7:30 a.m., shortly after the sun had awakened, an E-3 sentry began its assent for a seven-hour training mission. Upon takeoff, a large flock of geese flew haphazardly into the jets of an Airborne Warning and Control Systems plane. The plane crashed, igniting 125,000 pounds of jet fuel. Debris was spread across acres.


The incident cost U.S. taxpayers $180 million. Even more disturbing, the entire 24-person crew from that flight perished. It lacks proportionality to say that it was a tragic day for the families and friends of each of those Airmen.


The key to our mission success is determined by our synergistic team effort. And it's clear how vitally important the BASH program is to airfield safety. Our base as a whole is surely indebted to all those who are involved in the program. Certainly each member is a shimmering example of the importance of teamwork at Fairchild and the reminder of our success as an organization.