It’s been six weeks since we completed the migration and we won’t start training a new generation for another five months. Being home with friends and family is almost like having a normal life, but I still miss being airborne.
Maybe my desire to fly is more acute this year because I was grounded for most of our last trip south. As a prerequisite of the FAA exemption, we had to acquire private pilot licences and I was delayed in getting mine. Added to that was the fact that we only had six birds and didn’t need three aircraft. So I spend most of the fall on the ground – looking up.
As children our perspective of the world extended to the boundaries of our back yards. Our horizons expand somewhat as adults, but are generally limited to what we can see in all directions. As pilots however, the moment the load is shifted from the wheels to the wings, our vision of the earth is changed. What takes hours to cover on the ground, can be seen in a single glance and we gain a wider insight into the modifications we have made to the earth.
For many years I flew purely for recreation. It was a social event to spend an hour in the air and several more talking about it in the hangar afterwards. The beauty and grace of flying is medicinal for some. It relieves the tensions of the day and lets us escape the world below, both physically and psychologically. When you fly with birds however, it not only changes your perspective of the earth — but your attitude towards it.
It was twenty years ago in 1993 that I first flew in formation with birds. Bill Lishman recruited me to help conduct the first aircraft-led migration. In the fall, we led a small flock of Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia. Our first obstacle was the 36 miles of frigid Lake Ontario waters. I was younger then because I can’t imagine taking that risk now; two very light aircraft with 25 horsepower engines of questionable reliability over open water, in mid-November, for over an hour. Bill had organized a chase boat but waves slowed its progress and it was soon far behind.
Before we departed I wrote to the United States Customs and Immigration Service to ask permission for two foreigners to enter the country through a non-standard port of entry – at an undetermined time -with an unusual cargo. Their generous response was to have a Customs Inspector dispatched to a farmer’s field in the early morning hours to clear us through. Thirteen of the 18 Canada geese we led to Virginia that year returned to Ontario on their own the next spring, proving that birds can learn a migration from a surrogate parent flying an ultralight aircraft.
For Operation Migration what followed was a long list of experiments to improve the technique, membership within the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and twelve years of leading Whooping cranes on their first migration. For all of the OM pilots, their first flight with birds was a life changing experience.
The opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a bird means you will never see it through your own again.
Maybe learning to fly should be mandatory…