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Boston airport tests radar to avoid bird strikes

The system allows real-time tracking of even small birds up to five miles away.

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"To really further the science, we need a better antenna," said Matthew Klope, a wildlife biologist who works on bird-strike issues for the Navy at its Whidbey Island Air Station in Washington state.

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Bird strikes occur every day at airports worldwide. Most never make the news, because aircraft are designed to withstand them.

That was the case Tuesday, when a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 struck a flock of birds while taking off from Baltimore-Washington International Airport en route to Providence, R.I. One engine lost power, but the plane safely turned around and landed.

Yet the U.S. Airways incident in January highlighted the danger of a bird strike, even though it occurred at such a distance and altitude from LaGuardia Airport — where the flight originated — that neither bird radar nor scare tactics would have prevented it.

The Airbus A320 struck a flock of Canada geese, which can weigh as much as 12 pounds each. The multiple and sizable hits ended up wrecking both engines, turning the plane into a glider.

Capt. Chesley Sullenberger successfully steered it to a water landing, saving all 155 aboard, but he later acknowledged things could have been worse had he been forced to return to land.

Federal officials recently asked about installing bird radar systems at U.S. airports, though experts say there can be problems with screen clutter. The day the AP viewed the DeTect system, cells of rain co-mingled with radar returns from birds. Andrews said the system still was being calibrated for its new location and could be filtered to limit false alarms.

There is also concern about overwhelming both pilots and air traffic controllers with too much information during takeoff and landing, critical phases of flight.

In addition, there is cost. Trailers like the one at Logan can cost about $400,000 each, and buying enough equipment to cover an entire airport can reach $2 million.

The Air Force believes its worth the price to protect its pilots and avoid costs to repair its airplanes. It's installed six Merlin systems in the United States since 2003 and is planning another overseas. The first was installed in North Carolina at the Dare County bombing range it shares with the Navy.

And NASA has avoided a repeat of a 2005 incident when an 8-pound turkey vulture struck the external fuel tank on space shuttle Discovery. Two DeTect company technicians are on standby for Saturday's planned launch of Endeavour.

Logan is testing a Merlin system for three weeks. The trial has been free, except for fuel Massport has provided to run the trailer's generators. It will test the Accipiter system in the coming months.

Ishihara, the Massport aviation chief, said he hopes the technology proves worthy of the expense.

"It's another tool," he said. "It gives us eyes we may not have today."