Birds vis-a-vis TIA – An Unfortunate Correlation: Ramesh Man Joshi

Jet Airways flight from Mumbai, a B737-800 aircraft with registration mark VT-JBH, had some problem with its left engine when it was about to land at noon on Monday, December 29, 2014 at Kathmandu, that is, Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA). The plane, with 125 passengers and seven crew members landed safely. Nobody was hurt. Upon inspection, it was found that a bird (black kite) had hit the left engine but without any substantial damage to it. But then, if it had been flying at a higher level (cruising level of 30,000 ft or so), the birds wouldn't be flying at that altitude. It is just that bird hits have been taking place at one location or the other in the valley from time to time.

The correlation between the birds in the valley and TIA demands a very deep understanding of the situation. The remedy, that is, the measures for the reduction of the bird strike hazard to aircraft at TIA at least must be executed at all cost to allay any undesirable result. There is a saying in aviation, "If safety is expensive, try an accident". The aforementioned incident will definitely rekindle apprehension on the part of air passengers flying in and out of Kathmandu, who are already haunted by the news of Malaysian Airlines flights MH370, MH17 and the latest news of Air Asia Flight QZ8501, not to mention the bird strike to NAC aircraft MA60 at Biratnagar on June 30, 2014.

Birds in the Valley

The unfortunate correlation between birds and TIA is somewhat complex. Birds have always been a hazard to aeroplanes right since its advent in 1903 more than a century ago. Nepal is a rich country for birds. Altogether 871 species have been found in Nepal out of a total of 10,000 varieties of birds in the world. The Kathmandu Valley alone has the privilege of recording more than 500 varieties. Topography, climate, greenery, wetlands and agro-lands in the valley are just ideal for birds. Tourists are lured into visiting Kathmandu to observe the birds in the valley.

And then, an international airport is established right in the middle of this valley, where the solid waste has yet to be scientifically treated. Where earthworms grow in vast numbers beneath the grass area, only to come to the hot and warm asphalt surface of the runway and taxiway to die instantly in the warm winter sun. They only help to further attract the birds. The smell of open bar-be-que eateries just outside the airport fence are a delicacy for the birds, not to speak of the fun of soaring high in the updraft of the warm air over the asphalt/concrete surfaces, such as, the parking apron, runway and taxiway in a full stomach.

Outside the TIA, the immediate vicinity of the airport is surrounded by green paddy fields and perennial rivers, a big source of food and water for birds. And then, the Teku Solid Waste Clearance Depot of the Kathmandu Metropolis is only 4 km from the runway as the crow flies, a favourite site for the birds of prey.

Kathmanduites visit temples on a daily basis including the Pasupatinath, which adjoins the TIA, in the morning and offer foodgrains openly - free and easy food for the birds. Han Suyin, the famous Hong Kong-based Chinese writer, said in her book "The Mountain is Young" in 1958, "There are more temples in Kathmandu than people."  The Kathmandu Valley is, thus, a real paradise for birds.

Currently 29 international airlines and 17 domestic operators fly regularly in and out of TIA. Around 350 take-off and landings take place every day. The personnel at TIA are hard pressed for their safe operation all the time. Reduction of bird hazards is only one of the hundreds of activities they undertake on a regular basis. The Gokarna Dumping Site, just 2 km away from the TIA, played havoc in the late nineties in the sense that the site, on the flight path, proved to be a great attractant for the birds.

NAC aircraft B757-200 was hit by a bird on September 29, 2000. The aircraft was grounded for a long time causing great financial as well as goodwill loss to NAC. The dumping site was out of the jurisdiction of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN). Nevertheless, better late than never, the government, constituted not only a high-level Airport Bird Control and Reduction Committee (ABCRC), but also halted the operation of the Gokarna Dumping Site as well as construction of the Guheswori Link Road in September 2000 itself.

The ABCRC is headed by the secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation and consists of representatives from the Ministries of Home, Defense and Local Development and mayors of the valley municipalities. The director general of CAAN is the member secretary. CAAN has enacted a national level "Airport Bird Hazard Control Procedure" as well as "TIACAO Bird Control Manual". The general manager as well as other officials of TIA have been made accountable for adequate safety measures.

A Hunters Squad is active round the clock at TIA since decades, a special facility available only in a few airports around the world. They make regular rounds in the airside and scare the birds away by way of blowing sharp sirens, explosion of gas cannons, use of pyrotechnic lights as well as live ammunisation if need be. Remote (Tower) controlled high pitched wailers are placed evenly around the runway and played when required. Scare-crows are installed. All airport personnel including restaurant owners as well as locals outside the TIA are made aware of the importance of maintaining cleanliness around the airport. Massive cleanliness campaigns are regularly organised with the assistance of the army and police.

Sweeping of the runway (clearing the earthworms) is carried out daily. The grass strip adjacent to the runway and taxiways are cut and maintained properly. Pesticides like Binomyl are applied to get rid of unwanted insects. Open butchery or sale of meat is banned within 3 km of the TIA as per the CAAN Rules. But who will bell the cat?

Detailed cost benefit analysis of the application of avian radar at TIA is under study. Location of the concentration of birds are reported to pilots by the control tower whenever it occurs. Efforts made by the TIA to reduce the bird strike hazard to aircraft brought fruitful results in the past, which was appreciated at the international gathering of experts dealing with this issue. The TIA management really deserves kudos for their efforts.

Food for Thought

The Pokhara Valley is also popular for birds. The existing Solid Waste Landfill Site at Bachhe Baduwa is only 1.5 km away from the proposed runway at the new Pokhara International Airport (nPIA). The landfill site is supposed to be closed when nPIA comes into operation after three years from now. The Pokhara Sub-Metropolitan Office - Are you ready?

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requires Sanitary Landfill Sites to be at least 13 km away from an airport. Work has already started for the construction of the Gautam Buddha International Airport at Bhairawa. A study to assess a bird strike hazard situation must be carried out without delay. We should leave no stones unturned if Nepal is to be promoted as a great tourist destination.

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