Radio-controlled eagle decoy used to chase waterfowl from airport

Posted: Tuesday, September 05, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The eagle has landed -- in pieces.

The giant bird barely made it off the ground when it suddenly took a sharp right turn and crashed into a dirt field on the University of Alaska Fairbanks' experimental farm.

It lay on the ground, not moving. One of its wings was badly broken, the right wheel had fallen off and the stabilizer bar was broken.

''The engine is still solid,'' said Randy Compton, surveying the damage.

Engine? Wheel? Stabilizer bar?

Meet Bertha, the latest tool officials are experimenting with to keep birds away from the Fairbanks International Airport, where they pose a deadly risk to incoming and outgoing planes.

Bertha is a homemade, radio-controlled eagle. Compton, a renowned waterfowl artist and falconer, used blue styrofoam insulation to construct the bird. He painted it to resemble a soaring eagle. The wings, which span almost eight feet, are brown and have fingers carved out on the ends to duplicate an eagle's feathers. The tail is white and the beak is yellow. It doesn't have a head because that's where the engine sits.

''It's the size of a huge female bald eagle,'' Compton explained.

Compton didn't need a black box to tell him what went wrong during Friday's test flight.

''It's still too heavy,'' he said. ''This is the second time this has happened.''

Friday's test was the third Compton has conducted with Bertha since he approached the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard committee to see if the idea would fly.

The committee, which includes officials from the airport, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, UAF, Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base, was formed in 1988 to keep birds away from air traffic around Fairbanks.

''All the agencies agreed to try it,'' said coordinator Sam Patten, a biologist for Fish and Game who was on hand for Friday's test. ''I figure we use falcons, why not this?''

The first test was the most successful. On that flight, Compton got Bertha into the air and had the eagle circling over a flock of geese at the UAF fields before he had to bring the plane down because the wings were going to rip off.

''It was working,'' said Compton. ''All the geese were taking off.''

Bertha's wings broke on landing but Compton was able to glue Bertha back together and make a few modifications before trying again.

Bertha barely got off the ground in the second test flight before crashing.

''It was more of a cartwheel than a crash,'' Compton admitted. While ducks will flee at the sight of a falcon, eagles are the only raptor big enough to scare geese and cranes off the ground, a common occurrence at Creamer's Field each spring and fall when thousands of waterfowl migrate through Fairbanks.

''We've seen eagles go over Creamer's Field and empty the field of thousands of birds,'' said Compton. ''I thought if we could get something that looks like an eagle the birds might forget about the noise and the wheels.''

While Creamer's Field is about five miles from the airport and Fort Wainwright, the agricultural fields at UAF are only about a mile from the airport. Birds congregate there each fall to feed on barley that is grown and cut by the university's agricultural program.

''Their tendency is to feed here and then head across the airport to roost on the Tanana River,'' said biologist John Wright, manager of the Creamer's Field refuge. ''We don't want that.''

When university workers cut several fields of barley earlier this week, the birds flocked to the fields. Biologist Sam Patten counted 900 sandhill cranes and 700 Canada geese on the UAF fields sandwiched between Geist and Sheep Creek roads Friday morning, providing a perfect scene for Bertha's test flight.

Compton fired Bertha up and aimed her down a rutted, dirt road that served as a runway. Hundreds of gaggling Canada geese and bugling sandhill cranes were gathered only about 100 yards from Bertha's takeoff site.

Bertha was outfitted with a smaller version of tundra tires, the big, fat tires Bush pilots use for landing on rough ground. ''I designed it to land in dirt like this,'' Compton said, pointing to the soft dirt in a field next to the runway.

With Bertha's engine sounding like that of a weed whacker and Compton using a hand-held transmitter to steer the bird, the eagle sped up and veered to the left, almost hitting a piece of farm equipment sitting next to the road before lifting off the ground.

But in the blink of an eye, Bertha took a sharp turn to the right and nose dived into the ground.

''It did it again,'' yelled Compton's 10-year-old son and co-pilot, Kent.

Officials weren't deterred following Friday's failed test flight, though.

''Experiments don't always work,'' said a still optimistic Patten.

''I think it will work,'' Wright said.

As Compton inspected the damage after the crash, he knew what had to be done.

''Time to get the glue out,'' Compton said, loading the bird into the back of his pickup truck.

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