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Clearing the Runway

When you take off in a plane, you probably don't give much thought to the runway. You may notice that some are a bit bumpier than others, but you probably don't stop to think if they've been cleaned. From what? Our Vagabond Traveler, Doug Lansky, will tell you.

Clearing the Runway
by Doug Lansky

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Dear Rudy,

I recently spent a few hours at Heathrow Airport with Tony and Patrick, a team of runway checkers. Their job is to make sure the runways are clear of "bits and pieces". That is to say, bits and pieces that have fallen off of airplanes when they take off and land. I'll bet you never realized there were bits and pieces dropping off of airplanes to the degree that you needed an entire team of people to keep picking them up.

There are.

What sort of things do they find?

Tony said it's usually something like a winglet, a non-vital piece of the wing, from the way he made it sound, or a blown-out tire. But he once found a door from the underside of a plane. The good news is that whatever they find, they can usually identify it and notify the airline.

Although we didn't find any significant "bits", such as an engine or wing while I was tagging along, I did spot a small chunk of tire. Tony said the smaller bits get blown off into the grass when planes take off and land.

The best part of the job, as far as I was concerned, was being so close to the planes during take off and landing. To cover the runways without affecting the flow of traffic, Patrick would bring the yellow Land Rover to one end and, facing the landing or departing planes, charge at them like a mismatched game of chicken. We'd scan the runway for about 30 seconds before we'd have to make a quick exit onto the grass. When the plane roared past, we'd resume checking.

But the real science is the bird chasing. There are over ten species of birds on and around the airfield. And from the airport's standpoint, that's ten too many. Birds may have inspired flight, but now that we've got the hang of it, we don't want them around. They are strictly forbidden to use runways for taking off and landing. A seagull sucked into the engine is seriously bad news. A duck can go through the pilot's windshield. The day before, in fact, a tiny Starling hit the front of a plane. "But the windscreen was okay," Patrick said.

"And the bird?" I asked.

"The bird was taken in for an autopsy," Tony explained. I waited for the punch line, figuring the cause of death, head-on collision with a jumbo jet, was pretty obvious.

But Tony continued with a straight face. "They need to find out if the bird was eating something found on the airfield so we can get rid of it," he said. Clearly, this is serious business.

Airfield grass is maintained at eight inches, which has been scientifically proven to deter birds from feeding or settling. They even have a Scarecrow machine, a device that simulates nine birdcalls, with large speakers mounted on the roof of the Range Rover. They can imitate aggressive birds to frighten smaller ones off, or simulate birds in heat to attract the males and lead them away Pied Piper style.

By comparison, being a passenger is peanuts.

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