Meet the team working to prevent bird strikes at the SLC International Airport

SALT LAKE CITY — When boarding a plane, wildlife is probably the last thing on your mind.

But Troy Pelaar can't help but think of an encounter his plane had, just after takeoff at the Salt Lake City International Airport, years ago.

"We saw flames shooting out of the engine, and the cabin started filling with smoke," Pelaar said. "The pilot finally came on and said we hit a bird."

Pelaar described the minutes after the bird strike as the scariest five minutes of his life. The Delta plane he was a passenger on returned to the airport immediately, flying with its one good engine at a low altitude, uncomfortably close to the Great Salt Lake.

After landing, the airline arranged for another aircraft to take Pelaar and other passengers to Phoenix.

As far as dollar amounts go, it wasn't the worst event of its kind in Salt Lake City. That distinction belongs to a jet which ingested a hawk into an engine in 2008.

"The pilot aborted his take-off and stopped right before going off the end of the runway. All the landing gear was destroyed, the engine was destroyed, tires were destroyed. Total cost of the incident was $3.2 million," said Rokich.

Elsewhere, the costs are immeasurable. A plane taking off from Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City in 2008 experienced a bird strike and then crashed, killing five people.

In recent years, the Salt Lake City International Airport has stepped up its efforts to prevent bird strikes. Rokich and his small crew patrol the property daily for unwanted guests like seagulls, pelicans and ducks. But the bigger focus is on raptors, which seem to linger longer in the area, feeding off of rodents living in grassy areas near runways.

"In the last four years, we've trapped over 2,500 raptors" Rokich said.

Most are lured by wire traps about half the size of a soccer ball with a live mouse inside. They're placed in areas where raptors are seen, and often the bird will take the bait, or at least try to, in a matter of minutes. Unable to reach the mouse, the birds legs and talons get tangled in small "nooses" attached to the trap. The trap also has a 25 pound weight attached to keep the bird from simply flying away.

Once a bird is captured, it is photographed, a tracking band is placed, and the bird is soon returned to the wild.

"On average, [the birds are released] about 70 miles away from the airport," Rokich said. "The return rate is less than 10 percent."

In time, more birds will arrive, as the Great Salt Lake and its wetlands are the foundation of a migratory path for millions which migrate annually.

To make the airport a little less attractive to those flying by, its landscape has been undergoing alterations for the last ten years, specifically the grassy areas between runways.

"It's replaced with the mill run asphalt," Rokich said.  "There's 7,000 acres on the airfield. Obviously, we're not going to do this over 7,000 acres, but in critical areas, this is a key component to making our airport safer."

Mindful of the habitat they're taking away, the airport has 500 acres of mitigation wetland west of the airport where the landscape is slowly being enhanced to provide a more enticing environment for wildlife.

"It's good environmental stewardship that the airport's involved in," Rokich said.