How a deer can cause a plane crash

Throughout this year’s hunting season, Sitka’s airport has been contending with an unusual issue: dead deer. Carcasses have been washing up on the runway since November, attracting birds. And this has posed a big problem to business as usual.

Heather Bauscher is a wildlife specialist for the USDA. Her job is the clear the runway of airborne creatures. But lately, her bigger problem is deer. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Heather Bauscher is a wildlife specialist for the USDA. Her job is the clear the runway of airborne creatures. But lately, her bigger problem is deer. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Download Audi0

You know those contraptions where a hammer hits a ball which drops into a bucket which cracks an egg or something? Well, this story is set inside Sitka’s very own Rube Goldberg machine.

Heather Bauscher works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as a wildlife specialist. Her job is to clear of the runway of wildlife that could interfere with air traffic. Mostly it’s creatures of the sky: eagles, seagulls, and ducks.

But lately, Bauscher’s biggest nemesis is deer. “There’s a lot of steps between somebody pitching some animal remains overboard or leaving them on the beach and planes crashing,” Bauscher said, “but it can happen.” Carcasses have been washing up on the runway ever since the subsistence hunting season opened on November 1st.

Traffic Control: Wildlife 2, we’ll show you on.

Sitka’s runway is encompassed by the Pacific Ocean. The tides bring in debris and some of that debris attracts birds, creating a natural buffet (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Sitka’s runway is encompassed by the Pacific Ocean. The tides bring in debris and some of that debris attracts birds, creating a natural buffet (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

In her truck, Bauscher sped down the runway, which is fully exposed. It’s like a tarmac popsicle sticking out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Because of it’s design, carcasses tend to wash up on or near the runway every week. It’s like Las Vegas when the buffet is called, except for birds.

“Some of these coves really act as a catch all. You’ll see all sorts of debris. I mean, look at the way the waves are crashing and the water is pushing things in,” Bauscher noted as she slowed her truck near a wind sock. She caught a glimpse of something in the rocks and scrambles down them.

KCAW: Someone’s sneaker is floating in there.
Bauscher: Yep, all kinds of debris.

It’s debris soup really. But with her keen eyes, Bauscher spied a white tuft of hair.

Bauscher: See a little bit right there?
KCAW: Oh my god, yes!

A deer head.

Since November, Bauscher has been seeing one to three deer wash up on the runway every week. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Since November, Bauscher has been seeing one to three deer wash up on the runway every week. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

She picked up a branch that had washed up nearby and proceeded to poke the deer head, eventually spearing it with the end. She scaled the rock wall triumphantly, her blue gloved hand holding the deer head high.

KCAW: Oh it smells. It smells like death.
Bauscher: Yep.
KCAW: It smells like death.
Bauscher: Yep.

Bauscher chucked it into her back of her truck. One section is smeared with blood and animal parts, so she has to wash it pretty often , and drives off the runway.

Bauscher loads a deer carcass, picked clean by birds, into the back of her truck. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Bauscher loads a deer carcass, picked clean by birds, into the back of her truck. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Now think about it: all this collection work for one deer head that could theoretically attract a bird that could theoretically collide with a plane. Is it worth all the fuss?

Bauscher said that on a runway as exposed and wild as Sitka’s, it’s essential. This year alone, she’s counted 80 species of birds in the vicinity of Sitka’s runway. “If a bird strikes a plane, chances are it could severely damage the turbine to the point of completely destroying that engine.”

In 2010, an eagle flew straight into the engine of a Boeing 737 that was roaring down Sitka’s runway. No one was hurt – commercial planes have two engines –  but at other airports across the country, wildlife strikes have downed planes and killed passengers before.

In 2009, pilots had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River after birds knocked out both engines. Public pressure from that event motivated the Federal Aviation Administration to release data that year, which reported 60,000 bird strikes since 2000. Basically, it can happen to any plane with any bird. All it takes is some bad timing. And Bascher said the USDA doesn’t want to take the risk.

Bauscher: Because we’re not going to have a ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ in Sitka.

KCAW: Why not?

Bauscher: Well, I mean…look at it! There’s too many rocks. And how many times are you on a plane where you know the other people on that plane? Always. There’s always people you know on that plane and the way the flight runs from Seattle to Anchorage, if there was something horrible that happened because of a bird strike, there would be no way this whole community wasn’t impacted much less all of Southeast Alaska. And I think it would be a real shame for that to be because of some deer carcasses or fish carcasses or something that could have been preventable.

Phil Mooney – the area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game – urged those hunting to be more conscious of this very real connection between the sea and sky. And that means, not dumping your carcases on the side of the road.

Phil Mooney, area biologist with ADF&G, urges Sitkans to dispose of their deer waste though municipal garbage collection or by donating it to the Raptor Center. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
Phil Mooney, area biologist with ADF&G, urges Sitkans to dispose of their deer waste though municipal garbage collection or by donating it to the Raptor Center. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

“Don’t put it on the roadside. Don’t throw it in the water particularly. If you can put it in your garbage can that’s great,” Mooney said.

And if pick-up isn’t for awhile, or the carcass is getting stinky, Mooney recommends taking it to the Jarvis Street Transfer Station or the Alaska Raptor Center. Fortress of the Bear says it’s not accepting carcasses at this time, but will begin again in the spring.

Mooney sympathizes with those Sitkans who want to return the wildlife carcasses back to nature, but stresses that that kind of thinking is too risky in a city of 9000 with over half a dozen daily flights. “People think, ‘Okay, this one deer carcass isn’t going to hurt anything, or these two deer carcasses.’ But take that times how many hunters we’ve got out here and a good deer year and it gets to be a problem,” Mooney said.

Back on the runway, Bauscher has just enough time to scatter a group of ducks. She uses pyrotechnics, shot out of a gun. (Sound of silver comet exploding in the air) This one is blue with sparkles. It’s called a silver comet.

Bauscher clearly loves her job. She notified traffic control that the runway was clear. We watched from outside the gate as the noon plane took off into the sky, her eyes traveling upward. She then said her superpower of choice would be to talk to animals and tell them not to hang out on the runway, as beautiful as it may be.