Day 41 – Lead Pilot Report

Framed in a Picture…

“So Brooke.  How fast were you and the birds flying yesterday?”

“Well Jimmy, I’ll tell ya.  Because of the headwinds, we were flying so slowly that we could actually watch the earth’s tectonic plates moving.”

“Ah come on.  Really?”

“Yes Jimmy. The flight took so long that I actually replaced my stop watches on the instrument panel with calendars. And by the time we landed, Donald Trump’s grandson was running for President!”

There is great satisfaction participating in sports where finishing first does not always make you the winner. And for us, migration is not really considered a race. However, we all agree it would be nice to arrive in Florida sometime within our relatively short lifespans. After two down weeks, “Slow Flight” is a lot more desirable than “No Flight” so for the last three fly days, it’s been, “Southerly winds, here we come!”…. even if we occasionally looked down to see southern bound turtles passing us.

We are, after all, a collection of people, birds and equipment purposed to migrate. Not to do so… to remain idle day after day, has the interesting effect of turning our effort into an episode of “Twilight Zone.” The gnomes who, as we all know, live in the shadows waiting to inject our daily lives with their mischief, become active. First a puppet head disappears, then another. Then the porta potty refuses to flush, the pen gate latch becomes unlatched, the batteries of motorhomes discharge mysteriously, pull-start cords pull out of engines and before you can say “Children of the Corn,” the crew is wandering around armed with fly swatters swatting flies that don’t exist and yelling, “Which one of you guys took my_____!?”

As for the birds, who have not yet had the opportunity to work out their little problems, discover their internal rhythms or give their wings a flap or two, it is also frustrating. To them, two weeks of walking around inside the pen has just got to feel more like a “Perp Walk” than a migration. And it also delays our opportunities to gain insight into their little order of things and how we can best shape their behaviors to fit our own little blue print. So, the first little glimmer of doable flying we had, it was “Ready or not, here we come.”

That was four days ago when we left Pecatonica. But what has transpired between then and now seems more like one very long day. Migration is like that. So attempting to capture any or all of it for the purpose of reportage is like attempting to catch up with a long neglected diary.

We took off yesterday into the cold morning sky with more questions than answers. Would #1, boxed the day before, cooperate and become part of the team? And would #2 display any gains made from two solo one-on-one’s with the trike migration legs?  Would the birds shed their reluctance to climb knowing another wind farm lay just ahead waiting to churn them into avian butter?  And just how strong would these southerly winds be? Like it says on the first and last pages of the book, “Everything There Is To Know About Whooping Cranes For Dummies”, only the Shadow knows.

Soon the orderly geometries of the Illinois landscape were rolling out beneath us. Field after ultralight friendly field, each one a welcoming landing opportunity for the pilot suddenly assaulted by the roar of silence inevitably produced when the engine quilts. Fields which cradle and care for a drop out bird awaiting pickup either by ultralight or tracking van.  At times like this, we who travel the highways and bi-ways of the Illinois skies pay special homage to the original settlers of the state who came here centuries ago from Europe fleeing ultralight persecution. They tamed and shaped this land armed with only a level and a square and crafted a landscape so orderly and geometrically correct that no alien would dare to desecrate it with a crop circle.

Meanwhile, the birds proceeded to do their Class of 2015 things. For them, climbing seemed to remain a four letter word.  #1-15 and #2-15, as expected, stood out as the more challenging members of the group with #6-15 coming in a close third. But the order or disorder of it all was as fascinating as it was challenging, as the answer to the “What’s It Like To Fly With Birds” question was “It’s like being a stage juggler trying to keep six plates spinning on the ends of some long sticks.”  And “Don’t you get cold up there when you fly?”  “Not really, because it’s more like putting on a snow mobile suit and climbing into a sauna bath.”

Soon, #1-15 became just too unruly and disruptive for the class and I had to call the Principle…. ah, Joe for a pickup, which he skillfully performed.

Whooping crane 1-15 in flight. Photo: Joe Duff

Whooping crane 1-15 in flight. Photo: Joe Duff

Then the count was down to five plates.  And so it went as we scratched for altitude to clear the upcoming wind farm.  There are now so many wind farms in Illinois that Walmart has stopped selling fans because a University of Illinois astrophysicist has calculated that there are now so many propellers spinning that the incremental addition of just a few more is likely to turn the state into one giant airplane and lift it high into the sky. This revelation caused great consternation at the State House until state legislators realized that if this did, in fact, occur and the state landed squarely on the neighboring state of Indiana, the effect would be to double the tax revenue and lift the state out of its budget deficit. Flight schools around the State Capitol are suddenly operating at full capacity.

We wisely decided to skirt around the east end of the wind farm as if we were actually making forward progress, which conflicted greatly with my own senses since I was absolutely convinced we were really held squarely within the framed confines of a painting hanging on somebody’s wall. But the word patience is really migration spelled backwards and our destination began to take shape just beyond the edge of the picture frame.

Down we came as down we must and soon….. (did I really just say “Soon”?)… we were on the ground at the pen with Joe landing triumphantly with #1 just behind us… truly the real feat of the day. Walt and Jeff, who had been below us the entire migration leg while driving in reverse, soon (there’s that word again!) arrived and the birds were once again safely in the pen.

That’s when I heard Jimmy’s voice. “Patience, Grasshopper.  The world belongs to those who wait.” Makes sense, I guess.  Come to think of it, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad being a grasshopper. After all, a grasshopper can hop faster than we fly!


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  1. Jeannie Ulrich November 11, 2015 11:37 am

    Oh Brooke, thanks so much for your report. Your words bring images to my mind as often laughter (some times with tears) fills the room I am in as I read. As others have said, those of us who are land locked but with you in spirit hang on every word that you all write for us. Thank you for taking the time. You all have a gift of writing, too. Thanks again.

  2. Pat Sutherland November 10, 2015 6:01 pm

    Love to read ALL of the reports, but LOL ones are the best. I do have a request…we are on vacation through 11/22 and you just might (HA) make it to western KY or TN during this time. Put your location on each day so we’ll know whether to make the 10 hour drive from western Virginia to check you out!

  3. Cathy November 10, 2015 4:07 pm

    I loved this. But um Brooke, whoopers eat grasshoppers, just sayin.

  4. ffmn November 10, 2015 1:42 pm

    OK, so I read the first 5 paragraphs (is a single sentence alone considered a paragraph?) and knew I’d better visit the ‘powder room’ before continuing. Good Thing !! Great as always….Brooke. !!!

  5. ffmn November 10, 2015 1:20 pm

    Ditto Kay Huey~~~

  6. Mindy November 10, 2015 10:15 am

    Great report on the looonnnnggg journey Brooke. Bless you and congratulations on your success, and Joe’s as well. Makes me curious though how Joe got #1 peeled off from the rest…..

  7. Barbara Wing November 10, 2015 10:07 am

    Wow. Thanks Brooke for the laughs, and lessons on geography, physics, and bird psychology. Get some rest for the next fly days and keep that pull cord strongly in its place.

  8. rapnblu November 10, 2015 9:59 am

    Brooke, I find your treatise perfectly logical, with one exception: science could never compel WalMart to do business any differently. 😉

  9. Kay Huey November 10, 2015 9:51 am

    Brooke, you truly do give me many of those laugh out loud moments. Your piloting skills are incredible. Your imagination? Hope it never loses its pull-cord!

  10. C. Sanger November 10, 2015 9:34 am

    Wonderful report, Brooke!

    Thanks for taking/making time for it, we all appreciate all the efforts that the entire OM team provide for us!

    We “grounded” folks eagerly await these updates during the Migration Season! 🙂

  11. CJ Clark November 10, 2015 9:32 am

    I am very interested in your comments about the wind farms. I am wondering if there is some information published on how they affect migration of birds.

    Thank you and your team for all your hard work.
    CJ Clark

  12. Warrenwesternpa November 10, 2015 9:22 am

    Day 41 Lead Pilot Report Brooke Pennypacker.

    Excellent journal entry Brooke. As we ride with you and if you get a very clear atmosphere, could you send a picture of the Illinois landscape? Your description sounds fascinating.

  13. anna November 10, 2015 9:00 am

    keep it up….will be worth it when the end finally comes….