07/01/2011 09:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Airport Sends Biological Message to Critters: Planes Suck

Earlier this week Jim Hall, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, wrote an opinion piece for the Times expressing alarm over the location of garbage transfer station very near New York's LaGuardia Airport. One does not need to be an expert in aviation or wildlife to know that some very big birds are attracted to garbage and this is going to cause problems at the airport.

I mentioned Jim's article while having dinner with Andy Lester, manager of New Zealand's Christchurch International Airport on Wednesday night, prompting Andy to invite me to see how his airport is minimizing bird hazards by planting bird and bug repellant grass in some of the fields adjacent to the runway.

Ford Robertson and endophyte grass at Christchurch airport
As I understand it, in a process developed by a Kiwi agricultural scientist working in cooperation with the airport, an endophyte fungus is introduced to a certain kind of grass called fescue and the end product is given the catchy name Grasslanz Technology. It may look like grass, but birds don't like it and neither do bugs, making fields of the stuff unlikely to attract bug eaters. This is the first full year of a large field test and Andy and Ford Robertson, manager of quality and security, are monitoring it closely.

This afternoon, while Ford drove me around the perimeter of the airfield and I snapped photos, we saw several large magpies and some smaller birds on or near the airport but the Grasslanz test field was bird-free.  

Magpies hangin' at the airport
Christchurch airport officials are encouraged by their biological fix and consider themselves leaders in the development of an agricultural solution to an aviation issue.

Airplanes tend to encounter birds at low-altitude and the most dangerous time for this aerial meet and greet is during takeoff, according to Richard Dolbeer, an ornithologist and aviation consultant who spoke to me about after the successful Miracle on the Hudson landing of USAirways Flight 1549.

"On takeoff you're trying to gain altitude and you've got critical decisions to make in terms of turning around and lining up on the runway. This is why bird strikes on takeoff are more likely to cause significant failures on the aircraft but also they're more difficult for a pilot to manage,"  Richard said.

Try and imagine for example what it was like to be Roger Wutkl who was flying solo over Arizona when a bird crashed through the windscreen of his airplane, knocking his headset and glasses off and making a disgusting mess of the cockpit in November, 2009.

Grasslanz may not be a silver bullet, but it is a creative approach to dealing with a very serious issue.