Looking out the cockpit window 1,000 feet in the air, Stephen Sadosky could see that he and pilot Mark Reid were not alone as their Piper Saratoga approached the North county airport.
“Right before it happened, I was telling Mark, ‘There’s a lot of birds out there. Don’t we have to be careful?’’’ Sadosky recalled. “He said, ‘No, they won’t hit the plane. They avoid planes.’’’
Almost on cue, Sadosky looked up to see a turkey buzzard fold its wings and dive. With a hollow drum-like thud, the bird struck the leading edge of the plane’s right wing, exploding in a burst of feathers.
The plane landed safely that day in April 2008 after what remains the only bird strike reported to the Federal Aviation Administration by the North Palm Beach County General Aviation Airport.
But airport officials, citing reports of abundant wildlife near the runways, have been taking steps to reduce the chances of a serious accident like the flock of Canadian geese that forced US Airways Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York in 2009.
Their latest strategy, scheduled to start next month, calls for the removal of 55 acres of wetlands around the 19-year-old airport’s two runways and taxiways to discourage birds, deer and other wildlife from wandering close to planes and helicopters.
As part of the $6 million project, the affected wetlands will be covered with soil and grass – including nearly 20 acres at the end of one runway that’s designated for expansion under the airport’s long-term master plan.
The master plan, which projects possible uses to the year 2025, calls for lengthening the 4,300-foot runway to 6,000 feet at some point. But city officials in Palm Beach Gardens, which has final say in any airport expansion work under terms of an agreement with the county, say they are not aware of any runway proposals in the near future.
“That’s not going to happen,’’ said City Councilman Eric Jablin, who fought for noise and safety restrictions at the airport before it opened in 1994.
Still, projected development projects make runway expansion a lingering topic.
The airport, although located in unincorporated Palm Beach County, is just east of the Vavrus Ranch property, the site of a proposed residential development of 7,600 homes in Palm Beach Gardens.
It also is just south of the Beeline Highway, which is scheduled to be widened. And county business leaders have said a 10,000-foot runway – the same length as Palm Beach International Airport – would attract more aerospace business to the northern part of the county.
But county airport officials said the wetland mitigation project should not be construed a precursor to runway expansion.
“They are totally unrelated actions,’’ said Jerry Allen, deputy director of the Palm Beach County Department of Airports, who said the wetlands project was approved after extensive studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District.
To compensate for the destroyed airport wetlands, the county is enhancing 630 acres of wetlands in the Pine Glades West Natural Area just west of Jupiter Farms along Indiantown Road.
“I always hate to see wetlands being filled and I always question if it’s really necessary,’’ said Joanne Davis, spokeswoman for the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Florida.
“I certainly don’t want to see any pilots endanger themselves. If that’s truly the reason they’re doing it, then I couldn’t argue with it. But there could be other reasons. I do have suspicions that they’re going to want expand that runway.”
The reporting by pilots of wildlife strikes to the FAA is voluntary. Local pilots say there are many bird strikes they don’t bother to report because they cause little, if any, damage.
“As a pilot, I don’t consider it any more of a hazard while flying than I would driving my car and worrying about deer and a dog running out in front of me. It’s kind of the same analogy,’’ said Reid, the pilot involved in the 2008 bird strike that caused $4,000 in damage to the Piper Saratoga’s right wing.
Still, airport officials say they’re following the FAA’s lead to take a proactive approach on reducing the chances of a wildlife strike causing a serious accident.
The North County airport, which is a reliever airport limited to light aircraft, is on 1,800 acres flanked by the Loxahatchee Slough and the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area. Pilots and biologists have reported seeing deer, coyotes, sand hill cranes, egret, blue heron and other animals near the runways.
Countywide, there have been 135 bird strikes reported to the FAA since 2000 by pilots flying in and out of four main airports in the county: Palm Beach International, North County, Lantana and Boca Raton. None caused any injuries.
PBIA, the county’s busiest and only major commercial airport, had the most reported — 122. Most of those involved “soaring birds that really aren’t associated with wetlands,’’ Allen said.
The wetlands surrounding the runways at North County present challenges not present at the other airports, which are located in more populated suburban areas, pilots say. That’s why pilot Neil Haynie said he thinks most pilots will feel more comfortable after the wetlands are removed.
“You share the airspace with birds. You do everything you can to avoid, because it’s too late if you are ending up in a flock of geese or birds,’’ he said.
Haynie, husband of Boca Raton Vice Mayor Susan Haynie, has never been involved in a collision with wildlife but said he has seen the damage and injury to pilots caused by strikes at other airports in the country.
“It only sobers you to the point that it can happen to you so you do everything to avoid it,’’ he said.
Staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.
Bird strikes in county
How many times have bird hit planes here and at which airports? Check out our interactive graphic at mypalmbeachpost.com