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.

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