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Airport Security By Design: O’Hare Expansion Discourages Terrorists and Other Wild Intruders

The threat of terrorism, while very real, is only a part of the security design picture at O’Hare. Wildlife presents a threat to passengers on a regular basis. (Credit: Nicole Ezell)
The threat of terrorism, while very real, is only a part of the security design picture at O’Hare. Wildlife presents a threat to passengers on a regular basis. (Credit: Nicole Ezell)

standard of the 1960s,” says John Antonoglu, a licensed engineer and certified flood plain manager with  Primera Engineers Ltd. Antonoglu continues to coordinate with Anderson in O’Hare’s ongoing expansion effort. “The western side of O’Hare was overgrown with scrub brush and trees in an underdeveloped area,” he says. “Sometimes deer would wander in — they can jump up to eight feet.”

Now all perimeter fencing is 10 feet high and topped with razor wire. The new fencing also extends several feet below ground to discourage burrowing animals — or terrorists.

Every inch of airport area is now monitored by security cameras as well, Anderson says. There’s also a 25-foot clear zone surrounding the airport perimeter, so no trees, bushes, tall grasses or anything else can obscure the visibility of security cameras. “In other words,” Anderson says, “there’s nowhere to hide.”

All manhole covers are secure and locked down. Two streams that cross O’Hare are now secure as well. At the south end, the Bensenville Ditch is covered to prevent planes from falling in, and the covering forms an enclosed tunnel. Willow Higgins Creek on the north end is covered with cables extended over the banks to prevent birds and water fowl from landing and congregating there. And for good reason.

While human terrorists represent a formidable threat to airport security, birds and other wildlife pose considerable danger to air travelers, Antonoglu says. “Every airport is different,” he says. “In Illinois, the problem is mostly Canada geese and red tail hawks. Coyotes can be a problem too, but at other airports it might be something else. In Florida, it might be alligators. In Alaska, moose are a big problem.”

Bird and wildlife strikes that endanger air travelers far outnumber terrorist-related incidents. “The majority of strikes occur under 500 feet and in close proximity to airports,” says Antonoglu.

Total strikes are on the rise, from 9,906 recorded in 2010 to 13,668 in 2014, but the percentage of damaging strikes has declined from 6 to 4.3 percent — thanks to mitigating efforts encouraged by the Federal Aviation Administration. These include improved fencing and reduction of water and food sources on airport properties.

From 1990 through 2014, the FAA noted loss of human life caused by wildlife strikes across the country as only 20, but the terror of riding in a disabled plane with a flaming engine can’t exactly be measured, and damage and down time costs frequently spiral into millions of dollars per incident.

Upon contact with aircraft, birds, bats and other animals often destroy engines, and shatter windshields and windows. A heart patient being transported by helicopter to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis ended up with a duck in his lap, and that was after the bird nearly incapacitated the pilot.

Errant animals also inflict severe damage on other essential airplane parts, such as fuselages and fuel lines. Large grazing animals like deer and moose — common visitors at smaller airports — often destroy landing gear and have been known to decimate smaller aircraft.

The FAA noted 279 wildlife strikes at O’Hare between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015, but one of the airport’s most significant incidents, occurred almost nine years ago on March 15, 2007, when a B-767 carrying 165 passengers struck a canvasback duck at 700-feet. Flames were shooting out of one of the engines, and $1.8 million in damage resulted. The pilot managed to land safely, but the plane had to be towed to the terminal. Other close calls at O’Hare have involved: red tail hawks, gulls, crows, snowy owls and Canadian geese.

The FAA funded and assisted with the development of two reports supporting mitigation of wildlife hazards: the ACRP Report 32 Guidebook for Addressing Aircraft/Wildlife Hazards at General Aviation Airports and the ACRP Report Synthesis 23 Bird Harassment, Repellent, and Deterrent Techniques for Use on and Near Airports. (According to the FAA, both reports remain available at http://www.trb.org/Publications/Publications.aspx)

“One of the best tactics for avoiding air traffic collisions with wildlife is to basically make the airport itself a dead zone,” says Antonoglu. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have greenery. It just means we avoid plantings that attract wildlife. The plants that we want to have growing here should be drought tolerant. We also don’t want them to produce seeds for birds and we don’t want them to be palatable for grazing animals. Seeds and tall grasses also attract small rodents, and we don’t want that because rodents attract birds of prey, like red-tailed hawks.”

Shrubbery provides cover and nesting areas for birds, which is why you won’t find any of that at O’Hare either. Standing water also attracts wildlife, which is why proper routing of storm water is an essential principal of good airport design, says Antonoglu, who specializes in storm water management.

Finding just the right plantings to match local climates can be challenging, but the USDA provides an approved plant list at www.plants.usda.gov. Antonoglu used the website’s search tools to find drought-resistant, non-seed bearing, native plants that are less palatable to grazing animals to develop a spec list for O’Hare landscape contractors.

The O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP) also enlisted the expertise of Bruce Branham, a professor in the University of Illinois-Champaign Urbana’s Department of Crop Sciences. Working with Branham, O’Hare set aside an acre planted with a strain of tall fescue for testing. The grass has harbors a fungus that makes it less palatable to wildlife. It also has an upright growth habit, so it doesn’t provide cover for rodents. The fescue also requires less maintenance, making it the right choice for O’Hare.

Despite operating as “a dead zone” with no enticements for wildlife, O’Hare can still be considered a green space. Several rooftop gardens — including the impressive four-acre FED-X cargo complex and the United Airlines cargo terminal — feature non-seed-bearing sedum, which can retain up to an inch of rain water.

For every acre of wetland disturbed by O’Hare’s development, the airport supports in-kind restoration efforts of wetlands within the Des Plaines River watershed, Antonoglu says.

O’Hare also occasionally works with US Department of Agriculture to relocate raptors like the red-tailed hawk to more suitable habitats.

In addition to gun-toting terrorists and wildlife gone rogue, plenty of other threats to air travel continue to emerge — from lithium ion rechargeable batteries which can cause explosions when shipped in large quantities, to out-of-control insiders like Brian Howard, the contractor who set fire to the Federal Aviation Radar Center in Aurora, IL. That incident grounded 2,000 flights at O’Hare and Midway on September 26, 2014.

There will always be new challenges to airport safety and security — and plenty of work for engineers like Anderson and Antonoglu.endicon