‘You can’t keep your eyes off the air for a second’
Q: How do you scare away birds when an airplane is on the runway?
A: We have to carry wireless sets on us at all times to maintain a two-way connection with the control tower. When I spot birds on the runway or flying over it, I inform the control tower which asks the aircraft to hold till I issue a clearance. All operations on the runway are suspended when any kind of obstruction or foreign object deposit is observed.
When the plane is put on hold I get on the runway and take the appropriate remedial action, depending on the position of the birds. If they are close I shoo them away, if they are far I fire into the air or light up firecrackers to scare them off.
The bigger birds usually don’t get scared when you fire into the air. Sometimes, I have no choice but to shoot them and collect the dead birds before I can issue a clearance to the control tower, which then permits the aircraft to land or take off.
Big birds cause the most problems, but kites especially because they are large and strong and can severely damage an aircraft.
Q: What are the full specifications of the job?
A: Obviously, our biggest responsibility is scaring away birds and ensuring there are no accidents. We work with the airport staff, making sure the whole operation runs smoothly. We have to be great team players and of course, we have to be good at handling arms. Missing your mark can mean huge air traffic delays and even air accidents.
I have to rise well before the birds do. I am out here, come rain or hail, ensuring the safety of thousands of people every day and that is a scary thought.
Q: What are the different ways of scaring off birds?
A: The first thing to know here is that we don’t want to harm birds. We try our best to just make them go away.
There are scarecrows along the runway, which works for some birds – especially ones that are new to the area. But after a bird has come to the airport a few times, it gets used to the scarecrows. Then, we use firecrackers to startle them.
We also have to be on the lookout for nests. There is tall grass here and we are close to a populated area where birds can easily find food, making this an ideal place for them to nest. Once we find the nest, they have to be thrown away.
We do have to use real bullets. Cartridges are always used as a last resort. No one likes harming an innocent creature, but it has to be done. So many lives hang in the balance.
In some places, airports use dead birds as a warning to others. But not here; if you put a dead bird out here, others will flock in to eat it, causing even bigger problems for us. Even when we shoot a bird, we have to hurry and pick it up before it attracts others.
If we are talking about which method is most effective, then unfortunately I would have to say shooting them dead, because that is the only way to ensure they will not come back.
Q: Do you always work in emergency situations?
A: Always. Birds don’t make appointments and they don’t care if an airplane is leaving or coming in. Just the other day I was on a morning shift. An aircraft was about to land at around 6am when some big birds flew right into its path. I contacted the control tower and the pilot was able to make the plane circle at the last minute. Because there wasn’t much time I had to shoot down the birds, but I did save a terrible accident from happening.
You can’t keep your eyes off the air for a second. There have been bird-hit incidences where we are not able to shoot at the birds because we see them at the last minute. Sometimes birds get stuck in some parts of the plane, which makes landings riskier and costs a lot of money and time to repair.
Q: Why are birds attracted to airports?
A: Benazir Bhutto International Airport is located in the middle of a densely populated, urban area. Because waste is dumped out on the roads and there is no proper waste collection or disposal system, a lot of scavenger birds come to the area. The piles of garbage around the city also attract a lot of stray dogs, cats, hedgehogs and other animals and we have to keep an eye out for them as well.
Q: Is there a particular time of year or day when the bird problem is at its worst?
A: Monsoon season, which is July through August, is the worst. Birds come to prey on insects in the grass and it’s difficult to aim at them in the rain.
Early mornings, when birds are flying away for the day and dusk, when they return to their nests are the busiest times.
Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2018