TAMPA — It looked like a recipe for disaster: three turkey vultures in the path of a Canadian Air Force jet on a landing approach to MacDill Air Force Base.
One of the birds hit the jet's nose, punching a hole in the fuselage. In the cockpit, warning lights began blinking. Electrical systems failed. The crew of four described the damage as "massive."
But the jet's engines didn't quit, and the plane landed safely.
Details of the May 24, 2012, incident, confirmed Wednesday by the Canadian Royal Air Force, underscore the unending battle airports face in keeping birds out of busy air space.
It's a particular problem at MacDill, surrounded by water on three sides and a haven for everything from owls to bald eagles.
"Weird things happen at MacDill," said Rebecca Ryan, owner of a North Carolina company formerly hired by MacDill to drive birds away. "You name it. If it's a bird that lives near the water, they've got it."
The incident with the turkey vulture was first reported by Canadian media. The level of interest north of the border may have been magnified because the jet is one of several used to ferry the Canadian prime minister and members of the British royal family traveling in Canada.
The aircraft, a Challenger business jet without any passengers, was landing at MacDill to pick up Canadian Gen. Denis Thompson, head of a command leading Canada's special forces. Thompson was to be flown to Ottawa.
The aircraft was so badly damaged, the Canadians considered mothballing it. But in the end, the jet was repaired, though it only resumed flying in January, the Toronto Star reported.
Ryan, who owns Flyaway Farm and Kennels Wildlife Management in Chadbourn, N.C., said turkey vultures are an especially difficult problem at MacDill because the big birds enjoy riding the thermals generated over the base's long, hot runways.
"It allows them to conserve energy," she said.
A spokeswoman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, which flies a fleet of KC-135 aerial refueling jets, was unable to comment by late Wednesday.
Ryan's company used several strategies to drive the vultures off, including pyrotechnics. One method involves hanging dead vultures from trees around the base.
"It tells the vultures it's not a safe place to be," Ryan said.
Ryan also employed dogs at MacDill, but not just any pooch.
Her company uses border collies because the dogs tend to stalk prey with their tails down, bellies close to the ground, much as wolves or coyotes do.
MacDill had a severe bird problem a number of years back, Ryan said, after a private contractor planted millet around the base. Bad idea.
MacDill personnel later lined up shoulder to shoulder around the runways pulling out all the millet they could find.
But such embarrassing mistakes are not confined to any one base.
At another base, Ryan said, personnel planted bird feeders at the end of a runway.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]