Investigation: Norfolk airport sidestepped safety advice

Posted at 5:34 PM, Feb 10, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-10 17:34:53-05

Norfolk, Va. - For at least three years, wildlife experts have urged officials at Norfolk International Airport to make the field less attractive to large and dangerous birds, but documents show the airport leaders have not embraced all the recommendations.

The experts have said in several reports that the ponds and tall trees near the main runway attract heavy waterfowl and large birds of prey, like hawks and eagles. At the same time, Federal Aviation Administration records show the number of bird strikes is going up at Norfolk International. Wildlife officials also recently noted that after years of declines, the population of birds at the airport classified as dangerous to airplanes is rising.

The airport is home to several species of birds that, because of their size and weight, are classified as high threats to airliners. Records show that around two or three times a month, birds and planes collide near the runways. Most of the birds are small, and most jets can shake off such collisions. But records show some of the collisions have been costly. FAA reports show large birds can cripple a jet's engines, damage its control surfaces or hurt pilots.

Worries about airplane collisions with birds sparked the city's removal of a bald eagles' nest at neighboring Botanical Garden. It was one of the items recommended in the airport's wildlife assessment, but the move sparked protests and the formation of a group called "Eagle On Alliance." The alliance fought unsuccessfully to save the nest.

"Our argument from the first day was that the airport wasn't doing its job," said Carol Senechal, founder of the group.

Documents obtained by NewsChannel 3 under the Freedom of Information Act show while the city tore down the eagles' nest at a cost of $40,000, airport officials took no action on recommendations to remove ponds and perching trees from the airport itself. Bird counts at the airport noted only a handful of bald eagles in the area, but more than a thousand heavy and dangerous birds like the Canada goose and the Double-crested cormorant.

The airport's most recent wildlife recommendations includes statements like: "Removal of these ponds would eliminate a major attraction to waterfowl. One of these ponds has been used by Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks as an area for preying on waterfowl ..." The report also says, "Trees and other structures used for perching on the airport which can be removed should be removed."

Airport officials conceded that has not been done.

"We intend to," airport operations director Steven Sterling told NewsChannel 3. "What I am saying is we have included that in a long-term goal."

The long-term goal is a new parallel runway first proposed about a decade ago. Sterling said building it would mean removing the ponds and trees that repeatedly appear in the airport's wildlife reports as key attractants for dangerous birds. But Sterling said the runway plan is still being studied, and conceded it is not a certainty.

The report also says a city-owned canal that cuts directly in front of a runway also attracts dangerous birds into the path of airplanes. The ditch, called "Denny's Canal," links two city reservoirs that provide drinking water. The public-utilities canal is as much as 75-feet wide and eight feet deep. Senechal, from Eagle On Alliance, said she and volunteers have seen and videotaped Bald Eagles using the canal as a source of fish. She said one of the eagles that was killed had been sitting on a runway with a fish when a jet landed on it.

Senechal said the city had no business tearing down the eagles' nest when city workers and airport officials haven't done anything with Denny's Canal, the ponds, or the trees on the airport property itself.

"There are so many more things that could be done here because nothing has been done here," she said.

City spokeswoman Lori Crouch said the city has no plans to do anything with Denny's Canal. She said it would not be "practical or advisable" to alter the canal, but when asked what that meant or who had decided that, she would not say. NewsChannel 3 asked for a city official to say -- on camera and on the record -- why nothing could be done with the canal to improve airport safety, but Crouch said no one from the city would address that question.

Meanwhile, Sterling and other airport officials are now moving forward to make the airfield safer. After an initial meeting with NewsChannel 3 to hear our questions, Sterling and the airport's executive director, Wayne Shank, agreed the questions about the airport's ponds and trees were fair. Sterling said they are now trying to figure out if they can remove the ponds and trees without violating wetlands rules. And he said officials need to know if getting rid of the ponds would affect how the airfield drains in storms.

Sterling said in the next wildlife assessment, he expects records to show even more dangerous birds on the property. He said he doesn't know if that's because more birds have moved in, or that researchers are more vigorous in their documentation.

As for the eagles, the city's plan appears to have backfired. The most recent assessment noted: "Eagles are becoming more abundant in the area around" the airport.


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