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Western Sydney Airport – The Revenge of the Angry Birds?

By Amanda Foxton-Hill

Did you take part in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count from 17th to 23rd October? I did and my two (yes I know, only two) checklists have gone on to join the 44,707 others submitted so far in what will hopefully turn out to be a great triumph of citizen science.

Birds have been on my mind a bit lately. You see I live in the Blue Mountains, an area that, should the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Western Sydney Airport be approved, will have an open-all-hours airport located just 8km from its border. As someone who delights in the abundance and variety of birdlife in my backyard I had held the belief that the mountains had been thoroughly surveyed before such a major piece of infrastructure got this far. Especially given that the way the airport is planned makes it impossible for planes not to fly at relatively low altitudes over the national park and, of equal importance, Sydney’s largest drinking water supply, Warragamba Dam! But sadly I seem to have been mistaken. In fact, the mountains warranted only a passing mention in the official bird and bat strike section which goes on to rank this potential new airport as having a low risk of bird and bat strike. I find this rather odd and a little un-nerving. This disquiet has prompted me to delve a little deeper in a bid to establish whether this ‘low’ risk status is, in fact true or is it more of a case of wishful thinking?

Birds and Airports don’t mix.

Have you see the film Sully yet? This film centers on what happens when birds and planes meet. In this case it was a flock of Canadian Geese – we don’t get Canadian Geese in Australia BUT what we do get are Lapwings (Plovers), Ibis, Flying Foxes, Galahs, Kites, Magpies, Kestrels and many other birds that can either alone or in their flocks spell trouble and great expense for the aviation industry. Like many other people who carried out that bird survey I mentioned earlier, these ‘aviation problem’ birds were spotted and noted in many of the suburbs surrounding this proposed airport.

Bird strike is just as much a problem here in Australia as it is overseas and the Australian government’s website states that between 2004-2013 there were 14571 bird strikes on planes, a number that is rising in step with our increased love of air transportation.

I thought it would be interesting to see what October 2016 looked like in terms of bird and bat strike globally with a view to gaining a wider perspective of this issue and give some real data, a snapshot in time! So here are just the last few weeks!

21st October 2016 A330-200 travelling from Sao Paulo to Lisbon, suspected bird impact to engine. Fuel dumped and returned to origin within an hour of take off.

21st October 2016 B737 at Fort Lauderdale, rejected takeoff due to bird strike.  3.5 hour delay.

21st October 2016 Fedex B763 at Rochester, suspected flap damage, dead birds found on departure runway.

16th October 2016 Salt Lake City, Delta B739 bird strikes upon landing. 3 hour delay for ongoing flight.

11th October 2016, Southwest B738, rejected takeoff due to a bird strike. plane was replaced after a 2 hour delay.

6th October 2016 Alitalia E175 Engine damage from bird strike at Milan. Plane continued to Palermo but was unable to take off for its return flight.

6th October Qantas B744 at San Francisco. Bird strike to landing gear door strut. Plane made it to Sydney without incident.

heinrich-modelIt has been estimated that there are 100,000 scheduled commercial airline flights per day worldwide, so from 1st – 21st October there would have been around 2.1 million flights and 7 incidents – that’s 3.33 incidents per 10,000 flights which sits within the range of strikes seen at Australia’s major airports (the EIS reports this to be between 3.13 strikes – 10.96 strikes per 10,000). So with that in mind it looks like my October data can be seen as representative of what happens ‘out there’.

I was somewhat comforted by the fact that the above incidents involved financial and time losses rather than anything more sinister but then I remembered that HW Heinrich incident safety triangle they teach you about when you work in a factory (I’m an industrial chemist) and my optimism cooled once more.  I wonder if we have become a bit too complacent being as though most bird and bat strikes don’t actually kill people?

What the airport can control and what it can’t.

So now I have an idea of what can and does regularly happen I put on my management hat and looked into what can and can’t be directly managed and controlled. This is a tale of two ‘cities’ so to speak:

  1. The airport Proper.
  2. The airport Environment.

The airport proper is the actual space owned and managed by the aerodrome. In this case 17 square km of space, which is double the space that Sydney Kingsford Smith currently uses. I found out that there are strict guidelines of how the airport proper is to be managed to make it as unfriendly to birds and bats as possible. Throughout the planning stages and during operations this space is actively managed to keep foreign bodies (including bats and birds) out. Therefore minimizing the risks of a strike. Most bird and bat strikes occur at heights of under 500 meters which covers the movement of planes on the runway and also the early phase of take off and the last part of landing. Birds and bats, especially flocks can be picked up by ground crew and dispersed but this isn’t the end of the story and an airport must work with the co-operation of its neighbours within a radius of 13km or a total area of 531 square km to further reduce the risks. That’s where things like Warragamba Dam and the Blue Mountains come into play.

How far away from the airport do birds matter?

Reference: Height Distribution of Birds Recorded by Collisions with Civil Aircraft.

I was confused by the radius data given. 13km away from the airport sure does seem like a decent enough distance but what height will the planes be then and will that still put the planes in the path of birds? The answers are ‘lower than 5000 ft and yes’ . . .

Flying at 5000 feet or less? You need to be careful!  It isn’t like birds can’t fly higher than that though! In November 1975 a commercial Boeing 747 flying above the Ivory Coast in Africa sucked a Rupell’s Griffon Vulture into its engine forcing an emergency landing. The plane was flying at 37,900 feet above sea level at the time, way higher than anyone had ever expected to encounter a bird and reminding us not to take anything for granted.

In general, the higher the altitude, the lower the risk of bird and bat strike based on the likelihood of encountering a bird.

  • 6.89% of bird strikes happened at heights above 3500 feet
  • 19% happened between 501-3500 ft
  • 74% happened between 0-500ft

Birds hit harder the higher they fly!

While it is less likely to cross paths with a feathered friend when flying high it pays to remember that the mass (weight if you like) of a body changes in relation to its speed. The higher the plane is flying the faster the plane is going and therefore the impact with the bird with be more catastrophic as Einstein’s neat equation reminds us.

E = mc2

So one bird at 10,000 feet could rip through an engine with more ferocity than the same bird at 1,000 feet. Worth remembering I think.

So how does all of this relate back to the area surrounding this proposed airport?

Let’s borrow a map from the EIS bird and bat strike section and have a look:

Reference: Bird and Bat Strike.


The green line on the above map shows the boundary of the 13km radius and as you see within that sit a number of bird and bat friendly sites – they are the items named on the diagram. Surprisingly neither the Warragamba dam or the Blue Mountains National Park warrant a special mention on here which is odd given that both areas are well known for their birdlife. Indicative flight paths for this proposed airport were put forward in the EIS but subsequently revoked, as they had revolved around a single merge point for arrivals above the town of Blaxland in the Blue Mountains. Like most people I look at this map and know that the reality is all aircraft moving to and from the west of the airport will have to cross the Blue Mountains and will be doing so at low altitude. The EIS it’s self specified heights of between 4000-6000 ft over the lower mountains, which puts ALL arriving and departing planes into bird strike territory.

Mitigating risks in the 13km zone.

So the airport, should it go ahead will have significant power to influence planning in the 13km zone around it, especially with regards to reducing the potential for bird and bat strike. So the construction of new lakes, the improvement of existing waterways, re-vegetation and beautifying parklands will all have to be done under the provision that they don’t encourage ‘dangerous’ bird or bat behavior. One could easily imagine a situation where ponds are drained to make it easier and grasslands are concreted over. That can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be done to a National Park; especially a World Heritage listed one.

During my reading I’ve realised that it isn’t like the Western Sydney Airport would be the only airport near to either a National Park or bird rich habitat but I did find it is unusual to locate an airport of such planned magnitude next to what is, in effect the airports nemesis – tree and bird wonderland. No matter what anybody says bird and bat strike remains a significant issue for the aviation industry and one that is yet to be resolved.

The Blue Mountains gained world heritage listing for its wide range of eucalypts and large tracts of wilderness so it would be a bit cheeky for an airport to ask us to trim some of those lovely protected trees and kill or scare off some of those equally lovely and rare birds. As for the Warragamba dam well, we all know how much birds love water . . .

Citizen Science Bird Survey of the Area.

Thanks to that bird survey I talked about in the beginning I can get a idea of what birdlife exists in the 13km airport zone by tapping in the data shared by local residents, residents who carried out up to seven 20 minute surveys over that week in October. In fact, it is relatively safe to say that the data contained within this backyard bird survey is of more value than the surveys done for the EIS proper, albeit most of ‘us’ were amateurs!  I quickly discovered that the EIS surveying of bat and birdlife in the area was carried out over a few days in March 2015 and actually only consisted of a few drive-through sightings. No night observations (best for bats and flying foxes which do constitute quite a risk for planes), no seasonal variations and quite possibly not enough repeated visitation of sites to build up a statistically relevant picture of events. Hmmm . . .

So is the Low Risk Status of this proposed airport justified?

No, I think not.

Given the busy flight paths from the existing Sydney Airport, logically I can see why the majority of flights will come over the Blue Mountains both to land and to take-off. However, that then puts the majority of flights in danger of bat and bird strike – a danger that has to be managed with one’s hands tied so to speak. These planes will HAVE to pass the mountains at heights of 5000 feet or under – that’s physics not gut feeling or conspiracy theory.

The one semi-positive thing that my research has highlighted to me is that many bird and bat strikes are more of an inconvenience to the humans on board than a threat to human life. That said, I don’t know how positive anyone can feel about flying on a plane that stands a relatively high chance of ‘ingesting’ (that’s what it’s called) bird and bat life, some of which is quite possibly endangered. So I won’t die, but nature might. Nice.

You can just see this as another cost this airport has to plan for and manage while not having complete control. Bird and bat strike will happen, not least because the airport can only control so much and planes need much further than the airports legal boundary before they reach altitudes that put most bird and bat life out of harms way.

There are so many unknown factors with all of this but one thing I am confident in is the need for the Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg to stipulate that a decision on approval of this airport cannot progress UNTIL we have a much more thorough picture of what is going on in the skies above and around this planned development. The official EIS its self points out the need for more research and I think we owe it to ourselves, the airlines and most importantly the bat and birds of Western Sydney to carry out a more thorough survey over a longer time period. This is especially relevant since we cannot chop down the trees of the National Park and cannot drain the Warragamba Dam and cannot avoid flying at relatively low altitude over the Blue Mountains National Park.

To sum up, I feel less than satisfied with the data that has been used to reach their conclusion and agree with the need for more and wider surveys across a longer time frame. This would allow for a more accurate and honest reflection of the risks and costs both in terms of time delays and asset damage that might be part and parcel of operating out here.

The sad realization for me is that the burden of risk and cost of bird and bat strike sits mainly with the airlines and passengers of the aircraft rather than with the airport operators who can tick their boxes then be done with it to a certain degree. I hope this slightly cynical view wasn’t used to shape the current EIS just to ‘get it done’ so to speak as, if it was we could well be about to witness one of the biggest PR disasters of all time, reality tends to be harder to gloss over than wishful thinking and idealized scenarios.

My final thought is back to Heinrich and his safety triangle. Nobody wants to have their day ruined by a mob of angry birds.

Let’s hope they get back out there with their binoculars and do a proper job of it this time.

(For more information visit www.rawsa.info).


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  1. silkworm

    Einstein’s equation (e = mc2) has nothing to do with impact collisions. Nothing whatsoever. I suggest the author remove this part in order to restore some credibility to the article.

  2. Michael Taylor

    Silky, I think the author was trying to say that it’s all very relative.

  3. Michael Taylor

    Or that one add one equals two.

  4. Kevin Brewer

    Nice piece of work, beautifully written and argued.

  5. silkworm

    Also, the author’s surname is “Foxon-Hill,” not “Foxton-Hill.”

  6. Marilyn R

    Amanda, I fully agree with you about the lack of assessment being more than somewhat alarming. In reading the EIS I discovered that the actual assessment took only three days and daytime only. and was limited to the airport location only. Now as everyone well knows aircraft use flight paths and don’t just magically pop out of the sky. Seeing that MPs Anthony Albanese and Paul Fletcher have both stated publicly that this was a full assessment – the third such – I am very much concerned at this gaping hole. Indeed there is no way that this location can meet international safety standards. If a genuine, full assessment had been conducted and the truth acknowledged this location would have been dismissed as unsuitable, as it was by John Howard after the 1997 FULL EIS. Indeed when the Joint NSW and Federal Government Investigation into alternative locations was conducted the reference guide stated that part of the investigation was to consider alternative uses for the land as it was to be sold.

    Now I question why, after such a clear direction, that Badgery’s again, magically, ended up on the top of the list despite its unsuitability. Could it have been at the behest of developers and speculative landholders hoping to make money from it? Whatever!

    There is no way that deliberately structuring an EIS to hide or minimise the environmental impacts and the negative impacts on health to residents in western Sydney whilst providing only marketing instead of effective public consultation will ever turn this location into a site suitable for an airport.

  7. Colin Andersen

    “If I had to choose,” wrote the legendary aviator, Charles Lindbergh, “I would rather have birds.” Amen to that. I fully endorse Amanda’s argument re the dangers of bird and bat strike. Quite simply, the idea of putting an international airport (24/7 no less!) at Badgerys Creek, next to a world heritage-listed national park, within STRIKING distance of Sydney’s water supply (Prospect Reservoir & Warragamba Dam), bang on top of Sydney’s food bowl, in the middle of a pollution sink, and at a time when we should be reining in carbon emissions (which means the aviation industry in this instance) not ramping them up, is beyond lunacy.

    How typical, therefore, that it should have been revived by our most Trump-like of prime ministers, Tony Abbott (whose lips, BTW, were sealed on the subject BEFORE the 2013 election), and that it has been taken up by the two most anti-environment regimes in Australia’s history, the neoliberal Turnbull and Baird governments, aided and abetted by the Murdoch press.

  8. Colin Andersen

    Sorry, re Lindbergh, that should’ve read: ‘If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than planes.’

  9. Gwen Warren

    Beautifully written Amanda. I completely agree that the risk of bird and bat strike has not been properly assessed in the EIS. There should be further surveys undertaken before the airport is approved.
    I also think that the Blue Mountains will lose its World Heritage Status if this airport goes ahead as it was only granted AFTER the last airport proposal was abandoned.
    It’s madness to put a 24 hour airport with planes flying at 5000 feet next to a national park, Sydney’s water supply and other critical infrasture. It would make more sense, create more jobs and be less polluting to have HSR from Sydney to Canberra making use of its international airport.

  10. barefootgoodness

    I’m an angry bird, Amanda! Building an Aerotropolis at the base of the Blue Mountains, a transcendent National Park & World Heritage Area, is a worldy offence. Even the Australian Government describes any World Heritage Area as “of such outstanding universal value that its conservation is important for current and future generations” (https://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/about/world-heritage).

    Their concept of conservation is at risk, birds & bats are at risk, but planes will never be an endangered breed.

    The Individual powers who approve this monstrosity are ultimately working against the collective good. I understand that there are many residents who see a Western Sydney Aerotropolis, catering to 82 million passengers by 2063 (Final EIS), as filled with economic opportunity but the urbanisation that will precede those numbers will mean degradation of the natural environment & ill heath leading to fatalities. ‘Working oneself to death’ takes on a new, ironic meaning from such an inevitable, polluting, urban sprawl.

  11. Andrea

    Great article. The EIS conviently ignored this risk

  12. Susan Spedding

    So many reasons that Badgery’s Creek is unsuitable, possibility of bird strike being one. Putting a 24 hour airport in close proximity to a city, its main water supply and a priceless wilderness area is totally irresponsible. Additional toxic emissions from air and road traffic in the Sydney basin will negatively affect us all. Vested interests are ensuring that alternatives such as fast rail links to other more suitable sites are not considered by our shortsighted politicians.

  13. Jenny Dollin

    This is an excellent article and a reason to stop this stupidity. This EIS is just rubbish and must be redone at least.

  14. Jacqui Dimitriadis

    Amanda makes her point very clearly.
    I can’t imagine any other major city in the world would contemplate building a brand new 24 hour airport in the middle of the fastest growing urban area in their country and at the same time right adjacent to a native wilderness area. This government clearly has no foresight or consideration for people, the environment or for our wildlife.
    I have spoken to numerous tourists who come to our country primarily to see our wilderness areas and they have often commented that they are very surprised and alarmed by the devastation to pristine areas caused by development and mining. This airport development demonstrates more of the same lack of understanding for what both tourists and locals value as truly important.

  15. Linda Campbell

    There is so much wrong with the EIS. It is a joke. The bird and bat assessment was carried out over 3 days in March 2015 in daylight hours. It found that there was a risk of bird and bat strike but the risk could be mitigated. It said there were no colonies of flying foxes nearby but ignored the fact that the endangered grey headed flying fox is migratory and would not have been there at that time of year. The EIS ignores many things.

  16. Marilyn R

    Correct, Linda Campbell, by confining the assessment to the airport itself and not including flight paths and areas within the 13km safety radius the government ensured that the assessed risk could be stated as low where in reality it is High. International standards recommend that where risks are high a site is deemed unsuitable and should be dismissed.

    The risk of ignoring this fact means that the potential exists for a devastating air crash.How many lives will be lost? Will it impact on essential infrastructure within the risk zone? EIS states we will deal with that after construction!! What? How? The only way it can be mitigated is to raze the protected areas. Not on!

  17. Dianne Thorpe

    Thank you for a great article! One only has to look at the plane that went down in the Hudson River to see what damage can be done to birds and planes alike when they collide and quite frankly there are more than enough planes flying over the Mountains already without putting a 24/7 airport on our doorstep.

  18. Helen McFadden

    I can’t agree more Amanda! Only recently I was travelling on the M4 over the Nepean River and the sky was black with fruit bats as they flew from their colony at Emu Plains. “It is estimated between 1000 and 1500 bats live in this Emu Plains colony, one of about 18 colonies across Sydney.” according to an article in the local press, and on 24th Oct, a local of the area, Tim Williams, happened to capture the start of their journey as he used his drone to record the beautiful Nepean River one evening. (Not sure about the ‘killer’ idea, but it does fit with the ‘angry birds’ theme). But what it does show is the beauty of the area which would be ruined by planes overhead 24hrs a day/7 days a week. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwYxR71TGcE. Thankyou Amanda!

  19. Harquebus

    Mass is not weight. Occupants of the space station are weightless but, they still have mass.

    I think that the author has confused Einsteins mass energy equation with Newton’s second law of motion. f=ma. I would follow through on Silkworm’s suggestion.

    The airline industry’s days are numbered. I wouldn’t worry too much about this.


  20. Colin Andersen

    Quibbling aside, Harquebus, if the aviation industry’s days are numbered, how do you feel about the federal government squandering billions of taxpayer dollars on a second Sydney airport?

  21. Harquebus

    Colin Anderson
    A complete waste of time and energy. I doubt that it will ever be completed.

  22. Colin Andersen

    Harquebus, the feds are about to rubber-stamp the EIS. Watch this space…

  23. Katy MacDougal

    I was just thinking about bird strike and this airport the other day and how little seemed to have been addressed in the EIS and wondering which suburb or valley a plane might crash into … ☹️️

  24. Colin Andersen

    Western Sydney and its residents are regarded as expendable by the big end of town which just loves its water views.

  25. Brian Stevens

    Interesting article until I got to E=mc2. Is Amanda suggesting that a bird strike results in an atomic explosion? Amanda, you might not realise that the “c” in the equation is the speed of light, not the speed of a plane or a bird.

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