Day 52 – Lead Pilot Report

Date: November 20, 2015 Migration Day: 52
Dist. Traveled: 56 miles
Total Dist. 350 miles
Location: Cumberland Co., IL


First we thought it was number 1-15. Then all the evidence pointed to number 2-15. With each flight we learn something but we don’t fly often enough to learn quickly or maybe I’m just a slow learner.

It was my lead this morning so we took off for a quick check of conditions first.

The GPS tells us our speed over the ground and the airspeed indicator, strangely enough, indicates our speed through the air. Quite often those two don’t read the same like when we have a headwind  (when don’t we have a headwind?)

This morning they both read 38 mph so any wind we had was likely a direct crosswind and didn’t influence our speed. That was disappointing because the forecast called for northerly winds at 2500 feet and I was counting on a nice little push.

All the birds came out of the pen together which hasn’t happened in a while. That meant I didn’t have to wait for the stragglers. We made a sweeping turn to come on course and everything looked good -for awhile. We headed for the flyover site just like the last time we tried this. At about the same place that they turned back last Saturday, they broke again. This time I was able to catch them and they all gathered on the wing once more.

Number 2-15 pulled her usual stuff and tried to lead the aircraft and number 1-15 dropped below the wing, taking a few others with her. At one point, I noticed both of them on my right wing, fighting for the lead and I realized it was not 1 or 2 – but both, competing for top dog position.

Number 1-15 on the right challenges 2-15 for the lead position behind the wing of the aircraft.

Number 1-15 on the right challenges 2-15 for the lead position behind the wing of the aircraft.

The other birds instinctively follow the leader so, as the two battled it out, the rest of the flock kept moving back and forth behind them, never getting to a spot on the wing where they could benefit from the free ride. That meant that I had to continually lose altitude to let them rest. We had covered 10 miles and were still at 300 feet and my dreams of a tailwind at 2500 were fading fast.

Periodically, numbers 1 and 2 would each take a lead position on opposite wingtips and only then would things settle down. I coaxed them up when that happened but twice they turned back anyway.

Number 1-15 honking in flight.

Number 1-15 honking in flight.

By that time, they were far enough from the departure point that their commitment to turning around wasn’t that strong. Maybe they weren’t completely sure what to do once they had the lead so when I moved in, they rejoined my wing and stuck with me as we turned back on course.

Twice, number 1 dropped low and behind and for a time we thought Brooke would have to collect her. But she is strong and managed to catch us. At 10 miles out from our destination, we reached 2000 feet but there was no sign of the tailwind. Imagine that! Another incorrect forecast!

We did a long slow descent and all of the birds landed together on a little tractor road next to a wet bean field. This flight was the first time all six birds followed one aircraft for a complete leg unless you count the very first stopover. That was only a four mile trip back when the birds were young and eagar. Seems like  a year ago. Total flight time =1 hour 43 minutes.

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  1. Dmcallister November 22, 2015 12:29 pm

    Wow, 52 days! What total crazy dedication! Good luck on the next leg and congrats on this one!!!

  2. Sharon Miner Cherry November 21, 2015 8:19 am

    So glad your flight yesterday worked out. Hope to see you again next year in Piatt County. Safe travels for all OM crew and whoopers on the journey to St. Marks. God bless. Get me your address and I could send you some peanut brittle to St. Marks.?

  3. Sue McCurdy November 21, 2015 6:54 am

    I missed seeing the flight yesterday, but enjoyed your commentary. The pictures were great, especially of that renegade 1-15.

  4. Shepherd November 21, 2015 5:51 am

    I love the photos – put it on the OM calendar!

  5. Mary W-D November 20, 2015 10:54 pm

    Congrats and hooray!! Had been hoping you’d be able to move again today. Amazed you get pics in the midst of all that maneuvering — thanks very much. Here’s to more fly days, closer in timing, and with a tailwind at least now and then. Best to all of you!

  6. Catherine Wohlfeil November 20, 2015 9:22 pm

    Sounds like you’ve got a competition between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Captain Kirk! Both great leadership potential but with differing outlooks, strengths and strategies. They’ll be a wonderful benefit to the flock to have that much resourcefulness and drive bringing them back home next Spring. Keep leading them into the future. Their wings are strong and they will follow…

  7. Kevin Ford November 20, 2015 7:14 pm

    So glad the winds finally died down and you could continue south. By the way, to get a better idea of the upper level winds, use the RAOBs (RAdiosonde OBservations), weather balloon measurements taken every morning at 1200 UTC (0600 CST) – data usually available by 0650. About 20 years ago I wrote a crude tool to display the data, in a way useful for sport aviation pilots, at In particular it shows the measured winds aloft. For example, select the RAOB station at Lincoln, IL, “Complete report”, put in anything else in the other fields and submit. Safe journeys!

  8. Aaron November 20, 2015 6:41 pm

    I saw you flying next to my house this morning south of Cisco. I have seen many flights over the years and a couple of times you have gone right over my place. This morning was the first time I recall ever hearing the birds though. Looked a bit cold up there!

  9. Peter Smith November 20, 2015 6:12 pm

    Great report, and wonderful effort, Joe and team! I agree with Ruth- I am hoping that you will get some days in a row where we can move this journey forward. My best wishes to birds and people!

  10. Mindy November 20, 2015 5:55 pm

    Great reporting Joe! How you managed to get two great pictures with all that going on is amazing. Thank you! At least we had the opportunity to witness some of it today and glad the children in Claire Timm’s class did too! With all the turning and the cranes flying back and forth, we could only imagine what was going on. Now we know #1 was honking and trying to get the others to follow her lead instead of #2. They can travel separately on the Spring trip! It was a wonderful morning for the birds..glad they all flew in one group.

  11. Dorothy N November 20, 2015 5:01 pm

    The former “Super Six” are now reduced to the “Terrible Two plus Four”. There just ain’t no predicting and no two days the same with this group!! Thanks for another great report and for all the skill and work expended to take them south. You all are great!

  12. Deanna uphoff November 20, 2015 3:50 pm

    Yay! Glad they are all at the next stop. Pitt County has that long stopover reputation. Hoping for quicker migration now.

  13. PattiLat November 20, 2015 3:46 pm

    Thank you Joe, for this quick report. Loved watching the flight, the colts #1 & #2 jockeying back and forth right to left on the wing. Your masterful work 360ing around – us wondering heading direction using the sun. What a morning! How we appreciate the work you, Brooke and the OM team do! Such dedication! (I bet your neck is stiff from all that twisting.) Go team OM!

  14. birdlady9 November 20, 2015 3:44 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful report and awesome photos, Joe!

  15. Ruth Mitchell November 20, 2015 3:39 pm

    Now we pray for flying weather tomorrow, they need a few consecutive days to get this all into their heads!!!!

  16. Bikebrains November 20, 2015 3:34 pm

    For the weather geeks among us, use the county seats to get the weather for the county.
    Cumberland County, Illinois county seat is Toledo.
    Wayne County, Illinois county seat is Fairfield.
    Union County, Kentucky county seat is Morganfield.

    • Bill3 November 20, 2015 4:00 pm

      if you look at the journey south map you can zoom in to the neares town to the marker. that’s the closest and best for the weather/wind etc

      • Bikebrains November 20, 2015 4:51 pm

        Interesting. Since the location of the colts is supposed to be a secret, I did not think that the location of the map marker was pointing to anything other than the center of the county. Maybe OM could comment on this issue.

        • Heather Ray November 20, 2015 7:02 pm

          The map points are close but not exact.

  17. Carol Giancola November 20, 2015 3:31 pm

    Thank you for a great report. Just love the picture of #1 honking in flight. I think that it shows how happy she is with her life as a whooping crane. She is teaching us all a lesson.