'Hero on the Hudson' to be invited to Israeli conference on bird strikes

Israeli expert awed by pilot's coolheadedness and skill.

chesley b. sullenberger 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
chesley b. sullenberger 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The US Airways pilot who successfully landed a crowded airliner in New York's Hudson River last week following what appears to have been a multiple bird strike by Canada geese, will be invited to a conference in Israel this August on the dangers posed to aircraft by birds, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Tel Aviv University ornithologist Dr. Yossi Leshem, a world-renowned expert on preventing bird strikes and an organizer of the conference, said Monday he had great respect for the veteran pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger III, who is credited with helping save the lives of all 155 passengers aboard his Airbus A320 shortly after takeoff from La Guardia airport. According to Leshem, the chances of landing properly without anyone being killed under these circumstances were close to zero. "If he had landed at the wrong angle, the surface of the river would have had the impact of concrete and killed everyone," he said. Leshem, who did his doctorate in 1983 on preventing aircraft collisions with birds, proposed ways of using radar at various altitudes, particularly to detect migrating flocks and keep air force and civilian jets away. Today, he is the founder and director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at Latrun. "Israel is unique because, although it is a very small country, it is the convergence of Asia, Africa and Europe, and its skies are a bottleneck through which 500 million birds fly twice a year," he said. After watching the water landing on TV with awe and admiration, Leshem decided to invite the cool-headed "national hero" and former US Air Force pilot to Israel's Air Force House in Herzliya, where he holds seminars every few years for pilots from around the world. "I really hope he comes," the ornithologist said. "He would be the guest of honor." Leshem's research has led to a 76 percent reduction in bird strikes and an estimated savings of $760 million for Israel - not to mention the saving of many lives. In the past 30 years, "only" three IAF pilots have been killed in such collisions, he noted. While there is an average of 250 bird/aircraft collisions over Israel each year, he said this was much fewer than what would be without the methods he pioneered. His research was once considered classified, although today, information on ways to avoid such collisions is available to all on the Internet. Most collisions cause no harm, Leshem said, because the birds are small, hit only a single engine, aircraft speeds are relatively slow and pilots receive simulation training. The faster an airplane flies and the heavier the bird, the more dangerous the collision is. If a flock of three-kilo geese - or even a single bird - hits the engine of a jet at high speed, the impact is similar to that of a Merkava tank, he said. The IAF helped pay for Leshem's research because the Sinai, where the air force once conducted most of its training, was handed back to Egypt and Israel's skies were suddenly crowded. He and colleagues put real-time maps of bird paths in the sky, especially near civilian and military airports, so aircraft could avoid them. It was also Leshem who warned about the dangers posed by the huge Hiriya trash dump outside Tel Aviv, which attracted thousands of birds, and helped have it closed and turned into a park. Storks and raptors, Leshem said, cause the most accidents. IAF aircraft are in danger when flying low, while passenger jets are at risk mostly during taking off and landing. The area around New York's airports is home to many birds. John F. Kennedy International Airport, which is near La Guardia, is next to a nature sanctuary. Airport authorities use numerous methods to scare birds away, including the killing of large numbers, which arouses the ire of conservation groups. But new flocks eventually return. The IAF uses specially trained border collies, which are perceived by birds even at high altitudes as predators. But Ben-Gurion International Airport does not. "I don't know why," Leshem said with disappointment. The US Air Force reports 25,000 collisions and an average of three crashes each year. According to Leshem, only 20% of civilian plane crashes due to birds are reported as such by the Federal Aviation Administration. A global organization, the International Civil Aviation Administration (Leshem is a member of its executive), states that new airports around the world cannot be built within a certain distance of wetlands where migrating birds congregate.