This Air Force Base Has Begun Blasting Propane Cannons to Scare Away Birds

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Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota is home to the 28th Bomb Wing: two squadrons of B-1B Lancer heavy strategic bombers, devastating planes capable of extending America’s air superiority anywhere in the world. And now the Air Force has installed a new platoon of cannons along the base’s runways to protect the bombers. From birds. Using sound.

Ellsworth’s location in western South Dakota is an important migratory stopover for a variety of bird species. But birds and bombers don’t mix. In 1987, a 15- to 20-pound pelican struck and brought down a B-1B bomber traveling at 600 miles an hour. The bird ripped through a critical hydraulic line, started a 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit fire, and doomed the jet. The crash killed three of six crew members. In May 2016, a B-52 bomber crashed on the island of Guam after a bird strike. In total, collisions with birds have downed 27 U.S. Air Force planes and killed 36 airmen.

Traditionally, Ellsworth has relied on shooting pyrotechnics at the birds to scare them away. Currently, they’ve got airmen patrolling the base with the shotguns. The new network of 24 sound cannons creates shotgun-like booms without the projectiles.

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The cannons are remote-controlled tubes wired to 20-lb tanks of propane. According to, when they are activated remotely by personnel in the air traffic control tower or via handheld devices, they release a small amount of propane, then ignite it to unleash a deafening blast.

The base spends $200,000 per year repairing aircraft damage caused by bird strikes. The new system cost less than that to implement—just $150,000—and will require only $2,000 per year to maintain. That’s a small price to pay to keep a wing of $317 million bombers safe. And birds, too.

Headshot of Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he’s generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.

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