Planting Prairies at Airports Could Make Flying Safer

Those landing at Dayton International Airport next year will descend from the spacious skies into the fruited plains. Thanks to aviation director Terrence Slaybaugh’s groundbreaking prairie grass program, they’ll be greeted by songbirds, wildflowers, and shoulder-high grass instead of the typical turf.

Dayton International isn’t doing it for the views. In an effort to make the airport greener, less expensive to maintain, and safer from bird strikes, the airport is turning nearly 300 acres of airport land into native prairie grasses. If a three-year trial proves environmentally and economically effective, 800 more acres may follow.

By planting prairies instead of turf grass, airports could reduce their carbon footprints and minimize bird strikes.

Slaybaugh has a background in urban and environmental studies. When he took the director’s chair in 2011, he immediately began looking for ways to make the airport more sustainable, applying for federal grants and rekindling a long-dormant relationship with the nearby Aullwood Audubon Society. “Frankly, we were very poor stewards of our property before this project,” Slaybaugh says. By returning swaths of airport land to their natural state, he hopes to ensure the airport’s economic and environmental future—to move forward by looking backwards.

According to Charity Krueger, Aullwood Audubon’s executive director, “prairies once covered 3% of Ohio.” That number is shrinking fast. The disappearance of the state’s prairies is detrimental to the its environmental health: the grasslands are great at detoxifying soil, retaining water runoff, and absorbing carbon, but about 95% of them have been replaced by farmland, urban development, and other CO2-spewers. Dayton International was part of the problem—in the 1990s, they leased about 1,200 of their spare acres to a farmer, who turned them into soybean and corn crops.

By turning hundreds of these acres back into prairie, Slaybaugh aims to mitigate the airport’s environmental impact. As part of a recent sustainability initiative, Dayton International Airport compared the potential carbon footprint of different land uses and found that rewilding would put them in the black: for every acre they switched from farmland to prairie grass, they would eliminate about 66 tons of greenhouse gas production. Add that to investments in alternative energy and green building materials, and Slaybaugh hopes the whole property will soon be “more sustainable and more resilient.”

This big new swath of prairie will provide homes for meadowlarks, bob-o-links, and other small songbirds that require at least 100 acres in order to nest successfully. It may also keep away other birds that threaten aircraft safety. Collisions between birds and planes, known as “bird strikes,” cause millions of dollars of aircraft damage every year, along with hundreds of thousands of bird fatalities. The most dangerous birds are large waterfowl that travel in clumps—2009’s miraculous Hudson River landing was only necessary because the plane lost both its engines to a flock of geese.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires that all commercial airports have a wildlife strike mitigation plan, which may include pyrotechnics, catch-and-release, and even (if all else fails), “lethal removal,” says wildlife strike expert Travis DeVault. Airports in Seattle and Dallas are testing bird-tracking radars to help pilots avoid taking off at the same time as large flocks, and some airlines are retrofitting their planes with lights designed to scare off birds. But prairie rewilding might make some of this unnecessary. A recent study by DeVault’s team concluded that large, flocking birds are less common in prairie areas than in turf areas or agricultural land. Although he “wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a solution…this whole idea of alternative land use could be one part of a really successful strategy” to reduce strikes, DeVault says.

Prairie grass will not only help songbirds, pilots, and the atmosphere—Slaybaugh has made sure it’s good for Dayton’s investors, too. Unlike turf (which requires weekly maintenance), or farmland (which needs fertilizer, pesticides, and attention), tall prairie grass only has to be mowed once a year. The conversion also a one-time expense for airports: since the area near runway approaches is too close to low-flying planes to ever be developed, “it can be prairie grass forever,” says Slaybaugh.

Prairie grass may be headed to military airports as well. The Department of Defense has asked DeVault’s team to start studying wildlife strike risks posed by other grassland habitats, hoping they will be low enough to enable rewilding of military airfields along the East Coast. Soon, even Air Force pilots might be welcomed home by amber waves of grain.