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In Lemoore, Drought Poses A Threat To Navy Jets

We all know that California’s drought is posing huge problems for valley farmers. But as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports, it’s also a concern for pilots at one of the largest Navy installations in the west.

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It’s a busy day at the Lemoore Naval Air Station in Kings County. Pilots flying F/A18 Super Hornets are practicing touch and go exercises on a runway that’s painted to look like an aircraft carrier.

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Just under 12,000 acres of farmland surround the naval base.

But unlike those ships at sea, these runways are surrounded by miles and miles of farmland. It’s this remote location that makes Lemoore a perfect place for a training base for fighter pilots. But all this land does present a problem, especially in a drought.

In a normal year, Central Valley farmers grow crops like cotton and alfalfa on 12,000 acres of Navy owned land surrounding these runways. But this year, nearly 80 percent of those fields could be little more than bare ground, thanks to the drought.

And that’s creating problems for people like airfield manager, Mark Stack because jets and helicopters aren’t the only birds that fill these skies.

“The potential for bird strikes exist and typically happens during these increased drought years,” Stack says.

Bird strikes are a big issue at Lemoore. They’re the reason the Navy leases this land to farmers, because empty fields attract large birds of prey, which come to feast on rodents.

“The birds tend to show up because the prey base increases like the squirrels,” Stack says.

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Training pilots fly around 300 jets and helicopters in the skies in Kings County.

In 2013, when about 34 percent of these fields went unfarmed, the base saw 43 bird strikes. Stack suspects that number will grow this year.

And according to Navy pilot and executive officer Joe Guerrein those birds can do serious damage.

“Three weeks ago we had a large bird hit the nose of a fuel tank that hangs under the nose of the airplane and bounce off that into the left motor and completely disintegrated on the side of the intake and went down the engine and there was blood all over the side of the airplane,” Guerrein says.  

"It's going to be a bad summer and fall without question. So we hope that the recent rains that we've had over the past couple days continue." Mark Stack, Lemoore

While there hasn’t been a crash caused by a bird strike at the base, Stack says the concern is real.

“If we can have a good water supply, they can grow the crops that are necessary to keep those prey base animals at bay then the predators or the raptors typically stay away,” Stack says.

While we’re standing near the runway, Stack spots the base biologist trapping a bird using a mouse as bait.

“Where’s the bird? Can we look at it?” Stack says.

Nate Lang is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He spends his week driving around the base on the prowl for birds of prey. Today, he’s trapped a red tailed hawk.

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Nate Lang, the base biologist, uses a mouse and string to catch hawks.

“I just caught it about five minutes ago,” says Lang. “This one here was very aggressive, he was on it maybe one minute of me deploying the trap.”

Lang calls himself a red tailed hawk trapping expert. 

“We do catch some American Kestrels, haven’t had too much luck with others species that are around here,” Lang says. “There’s ferruginous hawks and Swainson's hawks, but for whatever reason the red tails are more susceptible to my trappings.”

He’s caught around 100 hawks in his three years at the base. Once he catches a hawk, he tags it and then relocates the bird as far as 100 miles away.

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Jets aren't the only metal bird in the sky at Lemoore.

Lang expects to have a busy year. In our short drive around the base we saw at least ten hawks.  

“Fallowing farm fields would increase the prey base, the squirrels – you know the mice – that these raptors are feeding on and it would attract them to the area,” Lang says. “So we are definitely hoping that we can maintain some of this farmed land, especially adjacent to the airfield.” 

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While trapping birds can help keep Lemoore’s pilots safe, Stack says the best solution to the bird problem is green farmland, but that only comes with rain.

“It’s going to be a bad summer and fall without question,” Stack says. “So we hope that the recent rains that we’ve had over the past couple days continue.”

Until then, Stack and his crew will do their best to keep their Super Hornets in the sky, and keep those other birds grounded.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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