There are people who are born to be administrators and those that have it thrust upon them like a punishment. I fall into that latter category. But the reward for my administrative penance is flying with the birds. In my opinion of course, it happens are far too infrequently to atone for all the time in front of a computer but you accept your recompense as it is allotted.
I spend several weeks in White River marsh over the summer but for most of it I am not the only pilot on duty. Brooke is also here and he deserves reward too. He works seven days a week monitoring the overwintering birds at St. Marks and conducts the early conditioning at Patuxent, so during the summer he gets weekends off. And that is when I get my prize.
Sunrise comes early this time of year so we roll out of bed at 4:30 AM. The ground crew heads to the pen while I drive north to the hangar. We text back and forth to check on the fog situation in the marsh and I get airborne shortly after the sun clears the horizon and burns off the moisture.
At this stage the birds are only flying in ground effect. This occurs when an aircraft or a bird flies close to the surface, which is why pelicans can fly so effortlessly just above the water. The proximity to the ground destroys the vortices generated at the wing tips which reduces the parasitic drag that burdens everything that flies. It takes energy to create that wake behind a wing just as it does with a boat. If you can reduce the wake, you improve the efficiency so flying close to the ground is much easier than flying higher up.
The birds have reached that stage when they are strong enough to fly close to the surface but not yet able to climb. So our daily exercising consists of a high speed taxi down the length of the runway while the birds fly beside us.
We also have early morning visitors. As soon as they hear the engine approaching. Sub-adult Whooping cranes 4-12 and 3-14 fly in to see what is going on.
On Monday morning I hoped to actually take off with the birds on the first run when they were full of energy and excited about being out. Unfortunately, the two white birds have a habit of standing right in the middle of the runway. When the chicks came out, I waited a second too long trying to judge how we could get airborne around the two visitors. In that one second delay, the birds took off ahead of me and flew to the end of the runway. Taking off with birds ahead of you is extremely dangerous. You never know when they will decide to stop and once in the air, we don’t have brakes.
I waited by the pen and, as expected, the chicks immediately flew back to join the trike. We took off together for the first time and all the birds followed during the initial turn. Most landed back after a short flight but with chicks on one end and white birds in the middle, I had no place to land. I circled, attempting to keep close to the runway. As I passed by the northern end of the field, the chicks would fly down to greet me. When I passed the south end they would fly back. Round and round I went looking for a space to safely put down while number 2-15 kept flying in pursuit. She was likely airborne for 2 or 3 minutes while the others got their exercise flying from one end to the other. Finally, I was able to find a spot and dropped in over the heads of the white birds who threat postured as if they were under attack.
In truth Saturday was their first attempt to fly beyond the end of the runway but it was not successful so it doesn’t count. I took off and immediately circled back. Two birds dropped into the tall grass at the end of the runway. Three more landed on the runway while number 2-15 followed me. After one quick turn I landed back over the heads of the white birds that were again standing in the middle of the runway. This left very little room to stop – especially on wet grass that makes the brake ineffective. I ran out of runway and eventually turned up the drive that leads to our access road. Number 2 had no choice but to land in 6 foot tall grass beside me. She walked out a little wet and somewhat indignant but nonetheless for the experience. The other two found their own way back onto the runway and we did a few more high speed runs in ground effect.
So far these birds are behaving perfectly…
(many thanks to Tom Schultz for the photos!)