Paw patrol at OR Tambo airport
Meet the doggie heroes who help to keep OR Tambo airport accident-free
IT’S the busiest airport in Africa, catering to more than 20 million passengers a year who board and disembark planes landing and taking off from the bustling hub’s runways. Safety is a top priority at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International and little is left to chance – the smallest glitch in the system could spell catastrophe, and hundreds of people are employed to make sure things operate like clockwork.
But it isn’t only humans who have important jobs around here: a quartet of canines perform a vital role too – a fourpawed patrol most people flying in and out of the airport are blissfully unaware of.
Scott, Ranger, Chase and Tina ensure the veld surrounding the airport’s runways are free of birds. The area might be restricted but there’s no keeping out feathered intruders – and should a bird be sucked into a jet turbine or engine, or hit the cockpit window, it could spell disaster.
A “bird strike”, as it’s known in the aviation industry, was the reason US Airways Flight 1549 had to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York in January 2009. The near-disaster was retold in the 2016 hit movie Sully, which recounted how the captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), became a hero for saving every life on board.
Pilots and air traffic controllers all over the world live in fear of bird strikes – but here at OR Tambo, it’s dogs to the rescue.
We meet Scott, a border collie, and his handler, Melissa Hoffman, in a conference room on the fourth floor of the airport building. Scott comes over for a sniff and a quick pat before settling down at Melissa’s feet.
“The dogs are trained to scare away the birds, not to catch and hurt them,” says Melissa, an animal-welfare worker.
The Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) has been using dogs to keep birds off the runway for 15 years, she tells us.
OR Tambo has two runways and every five minutes a plane takes off or lands.
Not only do Scott, fellow collie Ranger and spaniels Chase and Griffon prevent accidents, they also see to it that flights aren’t delayed because of pesky birds.
“The airport also has a problem with rabbits,” Melissa says. “Sometimes one is run over on a runway, luring birds of prey. The dogs are taught to retrieve the carcasses to keep that from happening.”
Only collies and spaniels are used, she explains. Spaniels – originally bred for bird hunting – bring injured birds to
Ttheir handlers, who take the creatures to a vet.
Spaniels do better in thick bush, while collies – one of the most intelligent, alert and responsive dog breeds – are more suited to open grasslands. RAINING patrol pooches such as Scott begins early in their life. The airport dogs are bought as puppies from breeders in Caledon in the Western Cape’s Overberg region. In their first 18 months they’re taught basic commands such as “sit” and “stay”.
After 18 months, when their bones are stronger, they start their real training as guardians of the runway.
Melissa says the costs of a single dog – buying, training and caring for it – come to between R220 000 and R250 000 in its lifetime.
The dogs love their job, Melissa says, and this is evident when we accompany her and Scott on a shift in the veld next to the second runway.
The minute Scott spots the golf cart Melissa uses to navigate the grasslands he starts to wag his tail wildly.
Scott’s colleague Chase and his handler, Mariano Booysen, meet us at the golf carts. Scott and Chase give each
‘The dogs are trained to scare away the birds, not to catch and hurt them’
other a sniff, then start jumping up and down with excitement.
“Up,” Melissa says, and Scott and Chase leap into the passenger seats of their respective carts.
Handlers use dog whistles to communicate commands and a dog won’t jump from the cart to chase a bird unless his handler has given the command.
The whistles are also used to call the dogs back. A specific whistle command also brings a dog to a sudden halt in the middle of a chase.
Scott is highly alert, turning his head left and right as he seeks out intruders.
The roar of a plane coming in to land becomes increasingly louder but Scott isn’t upset by the noise – on the contrary, his eyes sparkle as they quickly scan the environment, his body quivering with excitement.
Then he spots something about 50m away in the grass. He jumps up in his seat to let Melissa know he’s spotted his prey and waits expectantly for her to give the signal. At a blast of the whistle around her neck he shoots off his seat and streaks away. He barks a few times and suddenly there’s a beating of wings as the startled bird tries to get away from this stealthy security officer. Scott returns triumphantly, tail wagging in anticipation of praise – which Melissa proudly dispenses. Another job well done. Handlers feed their animals snacks such as dog biscuits during the course of the day. “But it’s just for the taste – it’s not a reward,” Melissa explains. “The job itself is its own reward.” Each handler carries a gun. It’s not loaded with live ammunition but the loud bang is sometimes used to scare birds off. “The dogs are so focused that they’re not distracted by the noise of the planes,” she says. But a potential problem is the presence of snakes in the grass – although the dogs usually manage to dodge the reptiles without losing sight of the bird they’re chasing. “Snakes are also important to the environment as they control the rodent population,” Melissa says. A stray dog once made himself at home near the runways. “We called him Boeing. It took us two years to win his trust – we managed to catch him only because he could see our own dogs trust us.” Boeing was eventually taken to an animal shelter.
SCOTT has been working at the airport for 10 years and is due to retire at the end of the year.
The good news is that Melissa will take him home, just as she adopted BD, the previous border collie she handled. BD died of old age in 2011.
Melissa says when a dog retires, the airport still covers its medical expenses and food.
But until then it’s work, work, work for Scott and his barking buddies.
The dogs work until about 9pm every night and are then taken to their kennels at the airport fire station.
Each wooden kennel has a mattress, blanket and heater. The fire station has a large enclosed lawn where the furry colleagues can romp around should they feel like it.
But they’re more inclined to just hit the sack. It’s a tough job keeping people safe.
Scott the border collie trots ahead of his handler, Melissa Hoffman, on his way to scare off birds that might become caught in jet engines or fly into cockpit windows.
Handler Mariano Booysen and Melissa with the airport paw patrol (from left), Chase, Ranger, Tina and Scott. BELOW LEFT: Scott keeps a watchful eye.
Shoo! Scott chases off an airspace intruder. He’s been protecting aircraft, airline staff and passengers from the danger of “bird strikes” for a decade.