An Alaska Airlines jet touches down in Sitka. Both runway approaches are over ocean. (Flickr photo/Pat Groves)

An Alaska Airlines jet touches down in Sitka. Both runway approaches are over ocean. (Flickr photo/Pat Groves)

If you find landing at Sitka’s airport to be a little unnerving, you’re not alone. One man is out there worrying with you: Dave Tresham spends 14 hours a day chasing birds from Sitka’s runway and airspace.

He spoke to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week.


This spring, KCAW’s Emily Forman spent a day with Tresham hazing birds. Listen to her story, which aired on National Public Radio, here.

It’s not the worst accident in Alaska aviation history, but it might be among the most preventable.

In 1995 an Air Force AWACS jet crashed shortly after takeoff from Elmendorf, killing all 24 personnel aboard.

The cause of the crash was a collision with some of the 300 Canada geese in the airport infield.

David Tresham works for the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Service, at Sitka’s airport. He worked previously at Elmendorf, where he says his boss helped unravel the cause of the AWACS crash.
Tresham showed the Chamber numerous slides of planes that have been brought down by birds, including the most well-known US Airways Flight 1549.

“Everybody remembers the Miracle on the Hudson. This was also caused by geese. Multiple strikes. The engines went down. And you can kind of associate with ourselves here in Sitka, the water — the Hudson — surrounding the airport. But 75-percent of the water around the Sitka airport is rocks and rock islands. There’s not a huge body of open water, or an open strip, where an aircraft could turn around and land if they lose engines real fast. So the Miracle on the Hudson was definitely a miracle, that these people survived. With the eagle strike that we had just a few years back, something like this is very possible at Sitka.”

Tresham’s been on the job since July of 2011. About a year earlier, an Alaska Airlines jet ingested an eagle on takeoff in Sitka, and the pilots successfully aborted with about 100 feet of runway to spare. Tresham says the damage to the plane was between $6- and 7-million.

The plane the airline sent to replace the damaged jet also struck an eagle.

Eagles are literally Sitka’s biggest bird problem. But they’re lower on the list nationally.

“Gulls. Next are the pigeons, then raptors, then waterfowl. Most of the strikes occur within three miles of the airports, and at 2,500 feet or below. So on approach or departure of an airport, that’s the most common time an aircraft will strike a bird.”

Tresham is all about eliminating bird attractants — both human and natural. He wants fishermen and hunters to reconsider dumping any fish or deer carcasses anywhere near the airport. He’ll just end up having to pull them off the rocks.

During recent airport improvements in Sitka, the state Department of Transportation removed topsoil from the airport infield, and improved drainage. This helps keep shorebirds off the runway. DOT workers also cut back brush around the lagoon, so smaller songbirds won’t congregate there. It was called the Sitka Infield Habitat Modification Project

But there are some things Tresham can’t do anything about but worry. Every spring, Sitka’s waterfront comes alive with the arrival of herring.

“If you look at this, there are over 70 eagles that we dispersed from the runway. This was close to herring season, first part of April. Eagles love coming up to the rocks on the runway when you have herring spawning on the runway shoreline. Daily we will be dealing with 50-100 eagles. Here are a few flying over Sealing Cove. When I say a few, there’s probably close to 50 there.”

Tresham says that overall, bird strikes are up in the US. He attributes it to more air traffic, quieter planes, and more birds.