Abigail Klein Leichman
January 28, 2009, Updated September 29, 2013

When US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency river landing almost two weeks ago after a collision with Canada geese disabled the plane’s engines, people across the world marveled at the pilot’s prowess in getting all 155 passengers to safety.

But few people followed the story as keenly as Yossi Leshem, an award-winning Israeli ornithologist and Israel Air Force veteran. A world-renowned expert on preventing bird-aircraft collisions, Leshem says the US Airways pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger III, was a hero.

“Most people don’t understand what a miracle it was,” Leshem tells ISRAEL21c. “It is not easy to land on water — especially with two damaged engines — at a perfect angle. If it weren’t for Sullenberger’s cool-headedness, he might have crashed in New York or New Jersey and it could have been another 9/11 story.”

Leshem, Tel Aviv University’s senior researcher in the department of zoology, arranged for Sullenberger to be invited to an August conference on flight safety for experts from the US and Israeli air forces.

At the conference, Leshem will report on his efforts with Jordan and Turkey to develop a regional, real-time, radar warning system to prevent bird strikes. He has already set up two such systems within Israel.

Migrating birds know no boundaries

The 61-year-old scientist, whose oft-repeated slogan is “Migrating birds know no boundaries,” decided to study migrating flocks for his PhD thesis at Tel Aviv University in 1980. In order to follow the birds more closely, he asked the IAF to provide him with a motorized glider and pilot. One day, the pilot showed him data on bird-plane collisions.

“I understood this was a big story,” says Leshem, who grew up in Israel and had always taken an interest in wildlife and conservation. This “big story” linked up with his research and continues to be a large part of his life’s work.

Twice every year like clockwork, some 500 million birds of 300 different species fly through Israel on their way to and from Africa, Asia, and Europe, says Leshem, founder and director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration and a board member of the International Bird Strike Committee.

In 1994, Leshem won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature for Flying with the Birds, soon to be reissued in an English translation. “It was the first time the prize went to a story about coexistence between aircraft and birds, and not about killing and shooting,” says Leshem, a father of five and grandfather of four.

His new children’s book, The Man Who Flies with the Birds, is due out in the spring. It tells how he helped the IAF sharply reduce its bird strikes – which can be both costly and deadly.

Bird strikes are common during takeoff and landing, or when aircraft fly at low altitudes. The faster the plane, and the heavier the bird, the worse the damage from the impact. In 1974, an IAF pilot was killed as a result of a collision with a pelican. In 1980, a honey buzzard hurtled into the cockpit of an Israeli fighter plane and hit the seat-ejection handle. The pilot survived his parachute escape with a fractured vertebra.

Birds and planes share a tiny airspace

Leshem discovered that the problem was especially severe in Israel because of the unusually high number of birds and planes sharing the country’s tiny airspace. Upon his advice, IAF bases have been using border collies for the past eight years to keep flocks away from airstrips.

This and other tactics have reduced collisions by 75 percent — and saved an estimated $750 million — since 1984.

In 2005, Leshem won the Mike Kuhring Prize for his achievements in improving flight safety and for his mission to connect safety with nature conservation. In 2008, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Environmental Protection as part of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations.

Leshem also sits on the executive board of the International Civil Aviation Administration, which is working to prevent airports from being built near wetlands where migrating birds congregate.

He has held various positions at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), for 25 years. He started as a guide and went on to direct projects including its Nature Protection Department and Israel Raptor International Center. He was SPNI’s executive director from 1991-1995 and in November 2007 was elected chairman of the SPNI Council.

Leshem has several other bird-related pursuits as well. In cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, Leshem is involved in educational activities in some 250 schools and is introducing owl and kestrel nesting boxes to large farms as a natural form of rodent control.

This ambitious project, supported by the Israeli ministries of Environment and Agriculture, the Amman Center for Peace and Development, and private funders, is based on the success of 1,470 nesting boxes currently set up on Israeli farms.

“With Muslims, it’s more complicated because owls in their tradition are bad luck, so they were a bit reluctant,” says Leshem, “but it’s a good solution for the farmers and it’s a good people-to-people activity.”

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