Bird-plane collisions up in the air are dangerous encounters for all. As part of the efforts made in the IAF to avoid such events, an archive documenting the remains of every such collision was founded
Dana Rusou | Photography: Eyal Bartov www.eyalbartov.com
If carrier pigeons were still in service, doubtful if they’d be willing to take part in delivering the weekly white envelopes addressed from various IAF airbases to the Bird-Watching Division of the IAF headquarters.
Also doubtful if the pilots manning these flights are aware of this strange habit, but Major Oded, head of the Bird-Watching Division and the technicians of the various airbases have a “deal”: When an aerial impact occurs with a plane, they’re responsible for the preservation of the remains.
When the plane lands, they collect a feather from it, in an event that one is left on the body of the plane, put it in a plastic bag and send it to the Bird-Watching division, there an archive made out of feathers is managed year-round.
Approximately 200 run-ins between planes and birds are reported every year. In around half of the cases some feathers are left on the plane, still providing the division with enough feathers to, most probably, stuff quite a few fluffy pillows.
The feathers that are collected are sent to microscopic identification at Tel-Aviv University. This identification process is important in order to learn details about the ill-fated bird, in hopes of understanding and defining the risks and minimizing future accidents.
“After you know what you ran into, what the frequency of meeting the particular species and where it travels, you can reach conclusions on how to avoid the next run-in”, explains Major Oded.
“This concerns the birds’ lives, the intactness of the planes and especially, as some cases have proven, the well-being of the pilots. If I was able to prevent even one accident, this entire process was worth it”.
The improvised archive cased in an old carton box, is mainly designated to provide technical details about the birds. But when the feathers are extracted from their small box, the first question that arises is: “How did this happen?” and every feather embodies an answer.
A story of a Crane
The first feather on our journey was taken from a Crane flying in the wrong place on one of the evenings of March, 2003. The flight was a transport of a “UH-60 Blackhawk” helicopter from the “Rolling Sword” squadron, carrying then Commander of the IDF, Lieutenant General (Res.) Moshe (“Bogie”) Ya’alon. The helicopter took off north from S’de Dov Airbase in poor visibility and heavy haze.
“Our sight range was limited and it was difficult to predict what the skies will bear. Suddenly, out of the horizon, comes a flock of birds”, paints Major (Res.) Yiftah, Captain of the flight. “Everything happened very fast. They swarmed the front windowpane and we immediately heard a powerful impact”.
“Deddi, are you okay?” Major (Res.) Yiftah asks the Navigator on the communicator, but he didn’t got an answer.
He turns his head left toward the Navigator and his field of vision is filled with a giant Crane.
“The bird actually came through the entire left part of the windowpane. Instead of a Navigator, I had a bird on my left. I was sure it actually hit him, but apparently it was a near-hit: its feathers were already tickling his nose”.
The navigator, who was hit mainly by feathers and blood, recovers within a minute, but suddenly an engine shuts off and Major (Res.) Yiftah realizes that he needs to land the helicopter as quickly as possible.
“I assumed that in addition to the bird in the cockpit, another bird had entered the engine and caused it to shut off. Our biggest fear was that the second engine would stop working soon as well”.
The recovering Navigator starts directing the helicopter toward its destination. There, on the ground, the details of the event crystallize.
The Crane had indeed smashed the windowpane, but that was the main damage done.
The engines were good and well. What caused them to shut off was the body of the Crane in the cockpit, which flicked the fuel tap switch off. As a result, the fuel flow to the engine was stopped and it turned off.
“Looking back, when I remember this story, I burst out laughing”, admits Major (Res.) Yiftah. “At the time it was nerve-wracking, there were some moments in which I was concerned for our lives, but the whole situation with the bird in the cockpit is pretty amusing. Too bad it made the Commander of the IDF late”.
A Story of Will
And there are more severe accidents, as tells the “Honey Buzzard”, which is a relic of a run-in with an F-16 in the fall of 1997 and is now extracted from the archive.
First Lieutenant Eldar, who was in advanced flight training at the time, took off for a flight together with an instructor. Over Mount Hermon, a bird hits the plane’s canopy.
“Suddenly I heard a tremendous “boom” in levels I’d never heard before”, he remembers. “I look and see a huge hole in front of me. I immediately froze. I felt like I was in a movie that was playing on its own, like falling out of a high window with nothing else to do but wait for the hit”.
After the impact, the instructor ejects the crew and Eldar finds himself outside the cockpit.
“I just found myself hovering mid-air. I saw a steep incline under me but you don’t have time to develop thoughts. You act on instinct”.
Only after the landing, Eldar’s mind clears and he remembers the instructor who sat next to him until just a moment ago. He calls for him, but doesn’t receive an answer back.
“15 minutes later, he suddenly emerges from the head of the mountain”, recaps Eldar. “His situation seemed worse than mine, his face was filled with blood and he was having trouble breathing”.
Eldar’s tool-belt, which traveled a little further with his parachute, is now a meter and a half away from him and he can’t move. He is lying there without water and without the ability to call for help and so is the instructor lying next to him.
“After 40 minutes, I saw helicopters circling the sky. Only then did I start feeling pain and exhaustion”, he says. Within a short while, the helicopters locate the two injured crew members and a 669 Search & Rescue Crew reaches them.
“We were rescued and when we were in the helicopter, a paramedic started cutting my jumpsuit and suddenly everything went dark”, describes Eldar. “The whole crew really didn’t move at all. We landed at the hospital and there I couldn’t hold on anymore, I just fell asleep”.
At the hospital Eldar was defined as in critical condition and was rushed into emergency surgery. Later, doctors had to amputate his leg from above the knee as a result of gangrene. But a positive ending for this story can also be found:
“I guess that at 21 your willpower is stronger than anything else and I wanted to return to flying”, says Eldar. “After years on ground, I returned to flying. I couldn’t fly the F-16 but I moved to a helicopter squadron and I fly in reserve duty to this day”.
A Story with a Good Ending
This story comes from a “short-toed snake-eagle”. This is an eagle of the hawk family, whose main source of food is snakes. This fact becomes slightly ironic in light of the following story. Because this time, when the eagle met the “AH-1 Cobra”, the encounter ended with his own blood spilled and a feather as well.
This story takes place on a spring day in the middle of the 1990’s, during a flight of two “AH-1 Cobra” helicopters from “Palmachim” airbase to “Tel-Nof” airbase. Over a sea of yellow sunflowers, the pilot of the second helicopter, Lieutenant Colonel Yuval, now commander of a flown medical unit, noticed a large bird approaching the first.
He warns him and the first plane takes a sharp turn right. Still, the edge of the left blade hurts the bird’s wing.
“I remember the bird tumbling a few times in the air and falling into the field of sunflowers”, recaps Lieutenant Colonel Yuval. “I started encircling the field and when I see that the bird isn’t taking off again, I decide to land”.
It is not a trivial decision, but it was clear to Lieutenant Colonel Yuval that it was the right thing to do.
“It was clear to me that we hurt something serious and that we caused harm”, he explains. The rest of the scene is probably just as unusual in the Force’s routine: a pilot in a jumpsuit leaves his helicopter at the edge of a sunflower field and embarks on a mission to comb through the flowers and find the injured bird.
“It really was quite surreal”, laughs Lieutenant Colonel Yuval. “The sunflowers were around my height, at full bloom and I’m walking through the fields. Suddenly I see it, standing with its back to me, huge and fat. I approach it and it turns to me and makes sounds like a scared kitten”.
The sounds are accompanied by a desperate attempt to spread its wings, making it clear that the bird is injured. “You could see that one of the wings was hurt. I understood that the bird was injured and in pain and decided to take it with me”.
In order to build trust, Lieutenant Colonel Yuval sits down next to the giant bird. A few moments pass and he inches closer and closer, until at a certain moment, when it is right by him, he wraps himself around its body and lifts it. “In retrospect that action was a bit rash”, he says. “It could have bitten me. But at that moment it felt right”.
The fearful, shaky bird allows Lieutenant Colonel Yuval to put it into the empty cannon cell and they take off. Meanwhile, Yuval calls for assistance that arrives at the airbase shortly.
“They diagnosed it with a broken wing and determined that the bird wouldn’t have survived had it stayed in the sunflower field”, says Lieutenant Colonel Yuval. “Later, they took her to the Zoological Department at Tel- Aviv University to resume treatment”.
A few months later, the injured bird recovers. Lieutenant Yuval, who hadn’t forgotten the case, was invited to its release into the forest. “It was very emotional”, remembers Lieutenant Colonel Yuval. “We need to coexist with our aerial neighbors. They also deserve to live”.