That time the Coast Guard tried using pigeons for sea rescues
Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, the Coast Guard thought they had a better way to search for people lost in the ocean. They tested using pigeons affixed to the underside of helicopters.
Yes, like the pigeons in the park. And, yes, it did work. The birds performed about twice as well as their human counterparts at spotting “appropriate targets” on their first pass over an area.
The pigeons involved in Project Sea Hunt, as the effort was known, were first sent to “basic training.” For obvious reasons, about the only thing pigeon basic shared with human basic was the name.
Pigeons were placed in training chambers with “peck keys” that released food when pressed. Once the pigeons got the hang of the keys, their training boxes would be faced toward Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, where a buoy with a radio-operated orange plate floated. Trainers would expose the orange plate and then reward the pigeon when it hit the keys, but wouldn’t feed the pigeons if the plate wasn’t exposed.
Over time, the target would be moved further away from the pigeons to train them to look further out to sea.
Once the pigeons passed basic training, the top graduates would proceed to advanced training where the pigeons were actually placed in chambers mounted beneath a helicopter and had to find orange, yellow, and red objects in the ocean. Each bird covered a 120-degree window, so a pod with three pigeons could see in 360 degrees.
In testing on the helicopter, the pigeons spotted targets on the first pass 90 percent of the time. The human crewmembers were capable of finding the target on the first pass only 38 percent of the time. In a later test, when the humans knew they were trying to catch up to the pigeons, the humans scored a 50.
In passes where both humans and the pigeons spotted the target, the pigeon spotted it first 84 percent of the time. The pigeons were proving to be amazing day-time searchers.
There were a few drawbacks to the use of pigeons. First, the weight of the pigeons had to be carefully maintained. Pigeons at 80 percent of their “free food” weight were generally hungry enough to search the ocean for hours without losing focus. Dropping below that weight threatened the pigeons’ health but going above it would reduce their effectiveness.
And there was one tragedy in the program. A flight was sent to hunt for a missing boat and the helicopter stayed out too long. It ran out of fuel and conducted a forced landing at sea. The crew escaped with no injuries but they couldn’t get the pigeons out in time.
A second batch of pigeons was sent through training to both replace the lost pigeons and to increase the number of pigeons available for missions.
Overall, Project Sea Hunt was so successful that a 1981 audit of the program recommended that the pigeons serve at a Coast Guard air station on proper missions and that new pods be developed so that the birds could fly on newer helicopters. Federal budget cuts resulted in the program being shuttered instead.
Advances in technology have made the pigeons less necessary. Planes designed to hunt subs using magnets are much better at finding plane debris than pigeons ever were, and improved homing beacons for rafts and wrecks make the job of scanning miles of ocean less necessary.
Still, there’s a niche that pigeons could still fill better than almost any gadgets, that of looking for orange rafts and flotation devices in the open ocean.
(More photos and background on the program are available at the Coast Guard’s web page for Project Sea Hunt.)
7 reasons why Obi-wan Kenobi was basically Ulysses S. Grant
Just replace Obi-wan's Spirit form at the end of Return of the Jedi with Grant's love of spirits and you could make a case for one inspiring the other.
This new technology can help tank crews 'see' through their armor
Being buttoned up in a tank used to mean being blind as a bat. With this new technology, that's no longer the case.
This is how John Kelly shut down speculation on President Trump's gold star family call
"If you're not in the family, if you've never worn the uniform, if you've never been in combat, you can't even imagine how to make that call," Kelly said.
Blumhouse and WATM team up to produce 'Searching for Bergdahl'
Blumhouse Television and WATM are teaming up to produce the documentary "Searching for Bergdahl," the untold story of the seven-year search for the missing soldier.
This is the real reason John McCain's Liberty Medal speech was so epic
When US media focused on a jab at President Trump, they missed the parting thoughts of a veteran and public servant of more than 60 years.
This little bot can take a lickin' and keep on tickin' for troops on assault
Weighing a little over five pounds, the FirstLook can handle being thrown into a hostile environment.
This is one of the deadliest kamikaze attacks caught on film
Japanese kamikaze pilots struck fear in the hearts of allied troops as they conducted choreographed nose-dives right into U.S. warships during WWII.
This is what it was like fighting alongside Afghan troops
In nearly every war in which America has taken part, troops have had to work alongside local forces who aren't always very motivated to fight.
This is how AC/DC helped save a POW in Mogadishu
The ending of "Black Hawk Down" was just slightly different than Ridley Scott showed. It was a moment former POW Mike Durant would never forget.