Guarding JFK Airport with a 12 Gauge and a Camp Chair
The author details the shotguns, air guns, rifles, and pistols he used to protect planes from animals.
Hunting is the most important tool available to wildlife managers. Sportsmen and women spend countless hours afield pursuing whatever species they favor, helping manage wildlife populations in the course. They also provide this valuable service for free, and contribute millions towards conservation in the process. This devotion has led to the rebound of a number of species, including whitetail deer and the Eastern wild turkey. The monies from license sales and excise taxes is used to manage lands, both game and non-game species, and a number of hunter-supported conservation organizations performing valuable research. But there are certain areas where hunting cannot be used as a management option. Some such areas are airports. Getting around an airfield has many special challenges, with movement through some areas being coordinated by the tower or ground managers. In the case of commercial airports, security clearances are required as access to aircraft is strictly controlled. While there are other government and private agencies that perform animal control work on civilian airports, the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Wildlife Services is the most prolific. Wildlife Services is the agency that is charged with alleviating issues caused by animals on a large scale. WS conducts disease monitoring and abatement in animal populations, such as avian influenza surveillance and inoculation of rabies vectors, dealing with animals that carry and transmit the deadly disease with bait drops or traps, as well as vaccination-and-release programs. Another specialty is population management of keystone species to limit habitat damage and agricultural loss. They are perhaps best known, and vilified, for aerial shooting of coyotes in the West.
After obtaining a degree in Wildlife Management from the State University of New York at Cobleskill, I took a job with Wildlife Services in 2008, spending more than my fair share of time sitting alongside one of John F. Kennedy International Airport’s many runways, 12 gauge in hand. Most of my airport time was spent at JFK, but I also conducted operations at LaGuardia Airport and a number of smaller airports, including an Air National Guard base. I also conducted both non- and lethal control at offsite locations in the approaches, among other tasks in my nearly six-year employment with the agency.
Bird Strike Mitigation
If you weren’t already aware of the dangers that birds can provide to aviation before Captain Charles “Sully” Sullenberger’s save of U.S Airway’s Flight 1549 by miraculously touching down in the Hudson River without any loss of life, you were after. While that was an extreme example, birds cause millions of dollars in damage to commercial aircraft every year (some FAA estimates are as high as $957 million per year), and even more so to military aircraft, but for national security reasons, those figures are kept classified.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 90 percent of these accidents take place near or at airports. With so many aircraft coming and going at one place, it’s little wonder.
The rapid gain and loss of elevation planes experience during landings and take-offs contributes to this, as does the speed of the aircraft relative to the birds. FAA databases indicate that 37 percent of collisions occur during take-off and ascent, with 60 percent occurring during landing. Various species of gulls are the most often hit, accounting for about 15 percent of strikes. Waterfowl are next with seven percent of strikes, but their larger size makes them responsible for 30 percent of damage-causing incidents.
Managers perform habitat modification to make airports less appealing to wildlife. These alterations include planting grasses that aren’t considered palatable to wildlife, and removing standing water. Insects are managed through mowing and pesticide applications to eliminate large hatches that would congregate birds. Rodents are trapped so their presence doesn’t draw birds of prey. Pyrotechnics, propane cannons, and other noisemakers are used extensively, with varying degrees of success.
Because there’s no real consequence to the explosions, birds quickly learn they pose no risk and begin to ignore them.
The final line of defense is the humble 12 gauge. These served as the bite to back up the bark of the pyrotechnics and other non-lethal means. Anyone that has ever duck hunted can tell you how quickly birds learn to avoid an area when you start shooting at them.
The birds targeted are those that would be considered abundant; species that are considered threatened, endangered, or of special concern weren’t taken except under extreme circumstances and with special permits specifically for their removal. At most airports, and JFK is no exception, gulls and Canada geese are the biggest issue.
When it came to choosing shotguns, we used Benelli’s line of inertia-driven guns almost exclusively, with the agency going through a number of other makes and models before settling on the B-guns. The safe was filled primarily with first-generation Super Black Eagles and M1s, which were, at the time, imported by Heckler & Koch.
It was the reliability of the inertia system that made them the firearm of choice. While many hunters go through a case of steel a season, these smoothbores often did so in a morning. The forage flights during gull nesting season sometimes meant a 500-round day. Gas-operated autos would require too much downtime for cleaning.
The Price of Heavy Use
The Benellis didn’t prove completely invincible, however. There was the occasional hiccup here and there, such as failures to cycle caused by recoil springs that had given up the ghost after a few hundred thousand rounds.
In one unlikely event, a coworker of mine raised up and squeezed on a laughing gull, only to be left holding two separate sections of gun—the entire recoil spring assembly had become so fatigued that it broke apart at the base of the receiver.
It must be noted that his particular firearm had been used in the program since the mid 90s, so it had likely passed the million-shell mark several years prior. Other issues came from being cleaned so frequently. Taking the bolts apart daily wore out the spring that retains the charging handle prematurely. My coworkers and myself all found the guns so reliable and user-friendly that we all purchased one for ourselves.
Years of experimentation also went into shot size selection. As it turns out, you can kill damn near everything that flies with #2 steel. Because of the high volume of shots, often over water, lead was never used. When the program first started, the denser-than-lead loads hadn’t proved themselves commercially viable yet, and now that they are, the price precludes their purchase.
I have personally killed birds ranging in size from European Starlings to Mute Swans with #2 Federal steel, including a cormorant at a verified 90 yards. Come duck season, that’s all you’ll find in my gun.
On the Airside Operations Area (AOA), there are few structures that you need to be careful of, but you need to be extremely aware of the ones that are there. The radar array and other navigation equipment is to be avoided like the plague as your mere presence is enough to disrupt the operation of the precision machinery. In fact, you must wait for clearance to even drive past many of these units. But just over the fence on the “Land Side” there are myriad structures that present wildlife management concerns, and have to be dealt with without worry of interfering with airport operations.
Hangars, maintenance areas, and other outbuildings can provide places for birds to roost or nest. Of course, devices are in place to dissuade this behavior, but unfortunately, the shelter these structures provide is just too much of a draw.
Waste management facilities also provide concerns, as they provide an all-you-can-eat buffet in the flight path that attracts birds from miles away. To mitigate the appeal, the waste management agency completely enclosed the transfer facility, but doors large enough for 18-wheelers provide easy access to all manner of birds, from starlings to gulls.
These structures are often constructed from tin, which would be easily damaged by even rimfire rounds. To effectively eliminate birds from these areas, pre-charged pneumatic (PCP) air rifles were utilized. The AirForce Talon SS, which features an adjustable regulator that allows you to dial up the pressure for 100-yard shots or take it down for shorter distances, were chosen for their ability to make clean kills without punching holes in tin.
The Talons were very user-friendly, giving the shooter an experience similar to a small caliber bolt gun. For knock down power, models in .22 or .25 calibers were selected. Because these shoots were high-volume, we would fill the rifles on site using a SCUBA tank, though they can be refilled using a hand pump.
A simple lever facilitates loading the single-shot and arms the Talon, which triggers the automatic safety. Because they use compressed air instead of a spring for propulsion, recoil is nil. The SS features a barrel shroud, which serves to slow the escaping air and quiet the report. The barrel shroud also features the control valve that regulates the pressure on each shot. I found the lowest settings, which sent the pellet downrange at 400 feet per second, which was more than sufficient for dispatching pigeons and gulls up close without damaging the structure. The highest setting, about 1,000 fps, would anchor even the largest gulls at 100 yards. Birds shot through the chest would die before they realized they were hit, and headshots, of course, resulted in instant kills.
Large Mammals, Rifles, Suppressors, and Frangible Rounds
While the vast majority of the threats are birds, mammals present danger to airplanes as well. A runway collision with a deer can cause considerable damage and even loss of life, particularly on smaller planes. Though deer are only credited with causing two percent of wildlife collisions, they always result in damage. A paper written by Richard Dolbeer, a biologist with Wildlife Services, and colleagues in 2000 stated that deer were the most hazardous species to aircraft based on damage and effect-on-flight.
We used frangible rounds in .243 for deer removals. Even on airfields, shots were rarely more than a hundred yards, owing to the largely nocturnal nature of these operations. Even though the majority of the actions occur on a flat plane with little to cause ricochet, the break-apart rounds were chosen for safety reasons. If I had my doubts when they were first adopted, they disappeared in short order.
The wound channel from the frangible rounds was quite impressive. I once shot a doe that stopped to look at me about 100 yards away. I put the crosshairs between her eyes and squeezed; she went down instantly. The entrance wound was what you would expect, but the round broke up in such a manner and spread so quickly that it had removed the back half of her skull. This wasn’t a fluke; dead-right-there performance was the norm with the agency’s preferred head and neck shot placement.
The powers that be believed in the mantra of “aim small, miss small,” so shots at the vitals were eschewed in favor of shots at the smaller targets of the head and neck. The idea was that misses would more likely be clean and less prone to wounding an animal that would have to be tracked. Safety was always the first priority, but the necessity for a humane kill was right there alongside it.
The rifles we used were a mixed bag built off of either Savage or Remington actions. The Remingtons used a 700-series receiver with a bull barrel and typically had a trigger job performed at a custom shop. The Savages were in the 110 line, with thick-contour barrels getting the nod. The factory AccuTrigger was left as is, and tuned down to a light pull. These were minute-of-angle machines. While not quite benchrest heavy, you wouldn’t want to hike long distances with these, especially once the suppressor was screwed on.
Optics were either from Leupold or Nightforce. The agency went for the largest objective lens that would fit without having a custom set of rings of built due to the nocturnal nature of many removals. Most were the characteristic 40mm objectives that are found on the standard deer rifle, but some were as large as 54mm. Typically, these were 4-14x power scopes, though they were never set toward the upper limits of their power. Most of the time the trigger was pulled, it was on a chip shot of under 100 yards.
For noise attenuation, we used Gemtech cans. These were thread-on models; the rifles weren’t outfitted with any sort of quick-attach adapter. As best as I can tell, the suppressors we used aren’t in the company’s catalog any longer, though they were purchased over 10 years ago so that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Personally, I never had to clean them as that was the office’s gunsmith’s job, so I don’t know the exact design of the baffles. I do know that they knocked sounds levels down to that of the average .22 rimfire.
Fur Bearers and Suppressed .22s
Deer aren’t the only mammals that can cause problems, with coyotes being a concern as well. After-dark patrols with night vision or infrared devices were sometimes conducted, though trapping was more frequently employed, especially to capture animals that were slipping through cracks in fencing. Cable restraints, more commonly known as snares, excelled here. Contrary to what you may have heard, these traps do not euthanize trapped animals. We would use the traditional trapper’s shot placement, behind the ear, to humanely kill these animals.
The preferred rifle for this type of operation was an integrally suppressed .22, firing shorts. One such rifle the agency had was a Ruger 77/22, which became a favorite of mine. It was virtually indistinguishable from a bull-barrel model, with the only real clue being the lack of report. The removable rotary magazine made it easy to unload the firearm when going from trap site to trap site.
With shorts, the only noise was the firing pin striking the cartridge’s rim—Hollywood quiet. Because the animals were euthanized while “walking the chain” there was more than enough energy to quickly and humanely dispatch them, and the bolt action negated the need for exhaust gasses to cycle an action.
These days, you can purchase a similar setup directly from Ruger, if you’re ok with a semi instead of a bolt action. The recently introduced Silent-SR 10/22 Takedown Integrally Suppressed barrel is built to swap into the iconic semi-automatic action, reducing report to about 113 decibels. The unit is user-serviceable, with only a single screw retaining the cap. The entire baffle stack removes easily once the cap is off, and each component breaks apart for cleaning. This makes for the ultimate pack basket or truck gun for any trapper.
I worked in New York State, which has draconian gun laws that make life difficult even for those employed by federal agencies. Pistol use was generally discouraged, but for technicians in other states that weren’t so encumbered, the AWC Amphibian S was a favorite. The integrated suppressor added little heft to the Ruger Mk. III chassis, but it could still be comfortably carried on the hip for daylong trap line duties.
If even quieter operation is desired, you can fill the suppressor with a couple of tablespoons of water to further attenuate the report. In my experience, this is unnecessary; I’ve found the noise to more resemble a “click” than a gunshot. This is all accomplished with supersonic ammo; subsonic loads are specifically prohibited, likely due to cycling issues.
AWC has since updated their catalog, and replaced the older model with an updated version named the Amphibian II which they claim offers even more decibel reduction and adds user-serviceability to the bill of goods. It’s also built on the Mark IV pistol, which is easier to disassemble than previous pistols in the line.
Night Hunting and FLIR
Nighttime is the right time for many animal control operations. Because deer and furbearers are more active after dark, you’re chances of success increase greatly after the sun goes down. Unfortunately for mankind, our eyes are not as adapted to periods of low light as other animals are. For that reason, engineers have developed machines to help level the playing field.
Night vision devices gather tiny amounts of ambient light, while forward looking infrared (FLIR) units read the thermal signature of both living and inanimate objects. Both have a place in wildlife control, but the thermal units have an edge as they can “see through” cover such as grass, picking up on the differences in thermal signature. This is exceptionally helpful, and really helps differentiate between objects when they are on the two-dimensional plane of a small screen.
Thermal scopes are now somewhat common, but they weren’t during my tenure. These units had just made their way to the masses, and they weren’t without their flaws. Battery life was abysmal, and if temps dropped below 50 degrees Fahrenheit they would begin to falter. I spent many hours with a handicam-sized unit tucked under my armpit, trying to keep it warm enough to work. Now airport wildlife managers have onboard FLIR systems in their trucks, with large dedicated monitors built into the dash.
Even if we found the animal via FLIR, we still used an old fashioned flashlight to take the shot.
We would often work in teams, with a spotter operating a handheld spotlight that they would kick on after the shooter was ready. In the event the shooter was alone, their rifle would be outfitted with a high-powered flashlight with a pressure switch.
Deer learn to avoid these light sources pretty quickly—just ask anyone that grew up in New York’s Otsego county—so they were only used at the time of the shot. In a two-person team, the spotter would take pains to only illuminate the animal with the halo of the light.
Wildlife management on airports is an extremely complex undertaking, with many moving parts. Advances in habitat modification are making the airfields less attractive to animals.
New radar technologies are getting better at recognizing small targets, helping planes avoid flocks, or even individual birds in some cases. But lethal wildlife control operations are still necessary, and will be for the foreseeable future.
To help keep the skies friendly, the men and women of Wildlife Services will continue to use tools similar to those you hunt with to do so.