There are 65 acres of trees around the naval air station slated for clearing in the coming months, a continuation of this past spring’s airfield safety efforts.
While these measures may have employees upset with the altered landscape, the end result could be a life saved.
According to data collected by the Naval Air Station Patuxent River Conservation Branch, there have been six deer strikes on the flightline here since 2000, with five happening in the same location — runway 32 near the steam catapult, TC-7. The last two were in 2013: the first involved an F-35 striking a deer upon landing, followed a few months later with an E-6 doing the same.
“There was only minor damage to the aircraft, but it could have been worse,” said Jim Swift, NAS Pax River’s Bird-Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) program coordinator. “The habitat on the infield side of the runway, behind TC-7, is good cover for deer to hide in and escape to without being harassed.”
This area, roughly eight acres, is one of 15 locations around the airfield slated for clearing. Swift said removing the trees and shrubs in these areas and replacing them with grass will “reduce the deer aircraft strike risk” because it lessens deer use in the area.
Only some of the clearing is primarily BASH-related; the majority is based on airfield safety issues and air operations requirements.
Airfield safety criteria are mandated by Naval Facilities Publication 80.3 (NAVFAC P80.3), Facility Planning Factor Criteria for Navy and Marine Corps Shore Installations, Airfield Safety Clearance. According to the latest Commander, Navy Installations Command airfield safety inspection report issued in 2012, lateral clearances at Pax are a “major concern due to numerous trees and their encroachment in the primary and transitional airfield safety zone.”
Airfield safety zones provide needed safety clearances and minimize obstructions for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter operations, said Cmdr. Craig Pearson, NAS Pax River Air Operations officer.
These safety standards include airfield height restrictions, lateral clearance from the landing surface, and clear zones that provide for unobstructed takeoffs and landings, and emergency overrun areas.
“The trees around the airfield seem innocent enough when aircraft are performing optimally in clear weather,” Pearson said, “but adverse weather and/or aircraft emergencies can quickly turn airfield trees into potentially fatal obstacles.”
Pearson added that adherence to airfield safety criteria increases the safety margin in an already hazardous environment, adding that large stands of trees on the airfield reduces aircrew’s situational awareness when taxiing or at low altitudes and they can block the aircrew’s line-of-sight at important areas around the airfield — the approach and departure ends of the runway.
Removing the trees along a taxiway, near the shoreline and along the routes where pilots take off and land, improves visibility and removes obstructions to landing emergencies. Changing these areas to grassy areas may be a double-edge sword though. While it helps with the tower’s line-of-sight, Swift said it could also present challenges for the BASH program.
“It is much easier to see wildlife in areas of short grass so they can be dispersed,” Swift said, “but they can also be an attractant for other wildlife species, such as Canada Geese.”
With that in mind, Swift said the air station’s Bird Detection and Dispersal Team is ready to patrol these areas more frequently in the early stages of the transformation to ensure this doesn’t happen.
While it looks like a lot of trees have already come down in the past year, Pax River actually boasts nearly double the amount of forest now than it had before the Navy came 70 years ago, said Kyle Rambo, the air station’s conservation director.
In fact, the air station’s efforts to plant and care for landscape trees has earned it more than two dozen Tree City Awards from the National Arbor Day Foundation.
“We’re not just getting credit for natural, wild-grown forests in our community,” he said. “They want to see effort to plant trees and maintain landscape trees to improve the human environment.”
Through the years, Public Works has planted trees in areas where they won’t impede ATC’s line of sight such as in parking areas, along roadways and in housing and work areas.
For more information about the tree clearing project at NAS Pax River, contact Pax’s Environmental Division Director Lance McDaniel at 301-757-2903.