The main threats to the Israeli air force’s (IAF) aircraft are missiles and other weapons launched from the air and ground. However, there is one enemy that has no hostile intentions but is posing a great danger nonetheless – the many species of birds that share the Israeli airspace with the IAF’s metal birds.
On 6 October 2011, an IAF two-seat F-15 fighter jet took off from Tel Nof airbase for an air-to-air combat exercise. A few moments after it took off, the two aircrew members identified a large flock of birds above them.
“We didn’t know about the existence of the flock and we didn’t receive word about it until the moment we saw it,” says Maj Rotem, the pilot, speaking to the IAF website. Detecting the flock, the crew took a left turn, not knowing that nearby there were several more birds from the same flock of pelicans.
“Despite our attempt to avoid hitting them, we passed through the flock… and our plane was hit by different birds.”
Fifty-two seconds passed from the moment the plane was hit until it landed on the ground. “We heard a few faint hits. We realised the left engine had stopped and that the back of the plane had caught fire,” said Maj Rotem.
Later it turned out that one of the pelicans had penetrated the left engine, while another pelican caused a rupture in the fuel pipe. “We went back to land on the runway we took off from and ultimately, we luckily left the plane while it was still burning.”
Despite the heavy damage, the plane returned to the air after being repaired.
As the number of IAF aircrafts increased and increased their speed, the need arose to investigate how the aircraft share the sky with birds. “We learned how to fly alongside birds, and for that purpose tracking stations – some equipped with special radars – were built,” says Maj Gen (res) Bodinger, former commander of the IAF.
“We learned the issue and made many changes in our practices. As a result, the number of accidents between birds and IAF planes almost completely disappeared.”
Today, things are quite different. “Following the studies that have been conducted over the years, we have introduced a lot of procedures during the planning stages and during flights,” says Brig Gen David Barki, head of human resources. “Nowadays, a pilot is alerted to the migration of birds in real time from an air traffic controller, and if it wasn’t for the research carried out we would continue to lose both pilots and planes.”
The tracking of birds is an everyday task that gets very complicated in migration seasons, when millions of different birds cross the Israeli airspace.
But the IAF learned how to coexist with the creatures with wings, and that has dramatically reduced the number of accidents.