NEWS | Feb. 24, 2016

Bagram biologist keeps wildlife at bay, aircraft safe

By Capt. Bryan Bouchard, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Feb. 24, 2016) — There are several threats to aircraft flying in Afghanistan: the treacherous mountains, the unpredictable weather and of course, the occasional bird. That’s where the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing safety office’s Scott Stopak comes in.

Stopak, a wildlife biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services, helps keep the airfield clear of bird and other wildlife hazards which can wreak havoc on flying operations.

“My goal is to reduce wildlife strike to aircraft to keep not only pilots safe, but allow them to fulfill their mission in support of the 455th AEW,” said Stopak, who is on temporary duty to Bagram from Boise, Idaho, where he’s a USDA wildlife disease biologist. “Our mission is to keep the pilots safe and keep the planes in the air as best we can.”

Stopak’s days here start before the sun comes up, and continue after the sun sets. Every moment in between is spent working the airfield, harassing offending wildlife or researching, evaluating and communicating about wildlife hazards he’ll have to deal with not only at Bagram, but also at Jalalabad, another airfield the 455th AEW manages.

“I like being able to use biology to help save lives or reduce the threat (to flying operations),” he said. “Every day is a different day, and it’s kind of exciting in that regard.”

Some of the various critters Stopak must engage with include jackals, birds, rabbits and the occasional monitor lizard. Each animal has the potential to not only disrupt operations, but more importantly, they pose a risk to the physical safety of those who fly missions here.

“We try to reduce the wildlife threats, especially the bird threats, at critical locations—primarily on approach,” he said. “But for me I see the hazard’s more associated with rotation, or takeoff. That’s the most critical time of flight.”

Anything before that, Stopak said, the pilot may have the opportunity to do an emergency abort and stop by the end of the runway.

“After they get rotating—or in the air—a significant (bird) strike or loss of power increases the chances that they could lose the aircraft, and that’s the situation that we’re trying to avoid,” he said.

This is Stopak’s third deployment in support of U.S. Air Force operations in Afghanistan, the previous two took place at Kandahar Airfield in the southern part of the country. He said he continues to volunteer to assist in the challenge of keeping airfield operations on the up-and-up out of a sense of obligation and service, much like the U.S. military members he serves alongside.

“I feel this program is extremely important,” he said. “I have a deep appreciation and a deep respect for military personnel. My opportunity to help come out here and support the troops’ mission is to me, something that I think we all should do.”

Since arriving to Bagram in November, Stopak has set dozens of traps, and fired hundreds of pyrotechnics. Majority of the time, he’s able to coerce animals to leave the area, but occasionally he must take more drastic steps to ensure aircraft don’t run into or ingest the animals during the most critical point in their flight. He’s been successful at this in his tours in Afghanistan.

“I think we’ve shown over our 10 years since Wildlife Services has been involved, that we reduce strikes pretty substantially by applying the biology to the airfield as best we can,” he said.

Back in the U.S., Wildlife Services performs almost an identical mission around the airfields. But Afghanistan poses some unique challenges, he said.

“It’s not like in the States where we can go outside the airfield and work with property owners,” he said. “Say they have a blackbird roost right across the runway—we can work with them. We are just on a limited scope here with what we have access to because we are in a war zone. I think our past has shown that we’re quite effective so far with what we’re doing.”

His colleagues here agree. Lt. Col. Timothy Smith, 455th AEW Chief of Safety, said that USDA involvement at Bagram is vital to the Wing’s success and has directly resulted in a 50-percent reduction in annual bird strikes here.

"Specifically,” Smith continued, “Mr. Stopak is the most effective and professional USDA individual I have ever worked with in over 13 years of Air Force flight safety. His knowledge and expertise are critical to our flight safety success.”

Another person who appreciates Stopak’s work here is his wife whom he explained “allows” him to come out here and provide this critical service to the Air Force.

“I have a very tolerant wife,” he explained. “She also has a deep respect for the military. She understands why I’m coming over here, and that it’s not about me; it’s about the military—and that’s why she’s agreed to have me come over and support the troops again.”

Supporting the troops, as well as serving alongside them is the best part of the job, Stopak said. “It’s the camaraderie,” he explained. “Things like sitting at the (dining facility) table with the office-mates and all the folks I’ve met over here—that’s the part I really miss when I get home.”