The big concern: a growing flock of white pelicans, 20-pound birds with 9-foot wingspans that pilots say began making appearances near the key flight path shortly after the dikes were breached two years ago at the Marin Audubon Society’s 645-acre marsh restoration project north of the Bahia neighborhood.
“Birds are a real problem,” said Pat Scanlon, who spends 400 to 500 hours aloft as head of a charter aviation service based at the airport. “My wingtip passed within 10 to 15 feet of a pelican” last spring, he added, saying the big white birds are sometimes hard to see, appearing suddenly like phantoms in the sky.
A hefty pelican, much more dangerous than smaller bird species, could take out a small plane, Scanlon noted.
Barbara Salzman, president of the Audubon Society, said her project is not to blame because “white pelicans have been expanding their range to the North Bay for some years now,” thriving in wetlands north of the airport, as well as south at Rush Creek, and east along Highway 37. Besides, as soon as the Bahia marshland silts up, the pelicans will move on to deeper water elsewhere, she said. “Bahia is silting, and if it has provided physical habitat, it won’t anymore,” she said.
As wetlands fill North Bay skies with more birds than ever, county officials have launched a wildlife monitoring program and are urging pilots to file “bird strike” reports on official forms filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.
A log of wildlife activity observed by county staff at the airport will be maintained and, along with FAA records, form the basis for a semi-annual report by public works officials who manage the airport, according to Supervisor Judy Arnold.
All hope there is not much to report. A review of FAA records indicates planes have struck birds near Gnoss Field at least four times since 1996 – three times involving turkey vultures. All planes landed safely.
Dave Ward, who has operated a flight training school at the airport for 25 years, was surprised at FAA statistics, calling the four incidents “four more than I have heard about. É We just don’t have a problem.”
But Scanlon and others worry that flocks flourishing in the region – especially the big pelicans that wait in wetlands to scoop up fish swept in by tidal flows – pose a growing threat.
Supervisor Arnold asked public works staffers to review the issue after receiving a letter from Louis S. Franecke, a member of the county Aviation Commission who reported that the Gnoss Field Community Association was worried about a “safety of flight” risk due to flocks of birds roosting at the marsh.
“If the bird activity has significantly increased as claimed, this poses a real safety of flight hazard to aircraft at the airport,” Franecke said. “This represents a potentially lethal threat as bird strikes by aircraft can cause crashes.”
Franecke, a noted aviation attorney who says he finds himself “dodging a bird” about half the time he uses the county airport, said that bigger birds like pelicans can break a windshield or damage an engine. “If it hits wrong, you’ll crash,” he said. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
Franecke cited a letter from Gnoss association president Mark Sheron, who called for an investigation “because the risk of a bird strike has risen dramatically as a result of the Bahia marsh restoration project.”
Despite aviator misgivings about the design of the project, it “went forward and was designed and constructed in a manner which has significantly increased bird activity and risk to the operators of aircraft in and around Gnoss,” Sheron said in a letter to the Aviation Commission.
“Pilots report encountering a great many more pelicans, geese and other birds on the base leg and final approach to runway 31 since the implementation of the marsh restoration project,” Sheron added. “These encounters pose a life-threatening hazard to pilots and to Bahia residents should a bird strike result in a crash of an airplane.”
Sheron called for a probe of the project and a study of “possible mitigation of the serious danger” it created.
Airport Manager Ken Robbins said he wanted to stay out of the fray. “This issue has already received some political attention and I won’t be commenting on it,” he said. Others don’t mince words.
“We are so strapped by the bird-huggers that there is little you can really do,” Franecke said. “They are going to do everything they can to shut down the Marin County airport.”
But Marin Audubon’s Salzman said that’s not the case, and suggested the airport take precautions including installation of an alarm system that alerts pilots when birds are present.
She said the society’s latest project will not add to the pelican problem. Wetland advocates are trying to buy 57 bayland acres at Mira Monte and Burdell Island not far from the airport. Plans include demolishing buildings while expanding wildlife habitat.
County airport advocates also hope to expand, but a long-standing $4 million proposal to extend the Gnoss Field runway 1,100 feet depends on federal funding – as well as a nod from state officials.
A new runway accommodating bigger planes in poor weather is critical to boost safety, especially because the airport could play pivotal role in a disaster, officials say.
GNOSS FIELD AT A GLANCE
Address: 451 Airport Road, Novato
Staff: Airport Manager Ken Robbins, 897-1754
Runway: 3,300 feet, parallel taxiway
Proposed: 1,100-foot runway extension that could cost $4 million
Daily transient fees: $10 single engine, $15 multiengine, $20 jet aircraft
Commission: Aviation panel’s next meeting is at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 at the airport.