In the late 1990’s, Bill Lishman became the first person to fly in formation with a flock of birds. He documented his great adventure by producing a homespun video called C’mon Geese, which won a number of film festival awards.
Terry Kohler was a Wisconsin businessman, an entrepreneur, a conservationist and a lifelong friend of Dr George Archibald. Terry was also an avid pilot with a fleet of aircraft including a business jet, (Cessna, Citation) and helicopter (Bell, Jet Ranger) and a turboprop (Cessna, Caravan). As it happened, Terry saw Bill’s video one day and passed it on to George with a note saying something like, “Do you think this could be used to teach Whooping cranes to migrate”?
A lot of things changed after that. I put aside a lucrative photography career. Bill and I formed Operation Migration and George joined our Board of Directors. We experimented with Canada geese, Trumpeter swans and Sandhill cranes. We worked with Columbia Pictures to make the movie “Fly Away Home,” helped establish the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and began reintroducing Whooping cranes into the eastern flyway.
Terry Kohler also stayed involved. In 2000, while the US Fish and Wildlife Service obtained all the permits and permission for the reintroduction, we conducted a preliminary experiment with Sandhill cranes. Terry used his helicopter to help us collect eggs from the wild. When the reintroduction finally began in 2001, Terry’s crew flew his Caravan from Sheboygan to Baltimore. They spent the night in a hotel so they could load ten young and inexperienced Whooping cranes in the early morning before the heat of the day added to the stress of their ordeal. By noon, they landed at the quiet, little Necedah airport without so much as a ruffled feather. Over the next 15 years, Terry was responsible for 32 round trip flights, delivering 209 Whooping cranes from Patuxent in Maryland to their new home in Wisconsin. On top of that generosity, Terry flew swans from Alaska, cranes to Alabama and once flew around the world delivering Siberian cranes to Russia for ICF. In fact, many cranes that now migrate in the wild once flew on one of Terry’s aircraft.
In year one of the Whooping crane reintroduction, Terry purchased a hangar that we found for sale at the Necedah airport. When he stopped in for a visit a year or two later, he realized it had a sand floor, so that winter he had it paved. He also had it insulated and hooked up the power giving us lights.
During our early morning migration flights, our departures were often delayed until the sun melted away the frost that accumulated on the wings. Fabric wings are difficult to scrape very effectively and glycol is messy, expensive and awkward. So, one day I bought 75 yards of Velcro, a bolt of black, waterproof nylon and a cheap sewing machine, and spent several down days making a wing cover. I am not much of a sewer and that cover was a hack job with crooked seams and lots of threads hanging out, but it worked. It fit so snug around the wing that you could push the aircraft out, start the engine and do all the pre-takeoff checks. Then you could rip apart all the Velcro seams before climbing in. The cover just hung over the wing protecting it from frost until the last possible minute. When it was time to go you simply dipped one wing and the cover, along with its coating of frost, slipped to the ground. We were airborne before any new frost could form.
That cover worked well but we needed more than one. I had yards of fabric laid out on the hangar floor when Terry walked in one day. He shook his head at my meandering seams while I explained what I was doing. With a smile, he reminded me that he owned one of the largest sail making companies in the world. He left with my original prototype as a pattern and a week later, we had five new wing covers with straight seams, professional corners, and like a badge of honor, each one displayed a big circular North Sail logo.
Terry Kohler passed away last September at age 82. We lost a great conservationist, a supporter and a friend. Terry left behind many legacies, not the least of which can be seen migrating in the skies of his home state. But the work he supported is not yet complete and those all-important flights are still needed, now more than ever as we get closer to our goal. We are searching for another pilot/owner with an interest in the creatures that taught us all to fly.
The Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada is able to raise three or four Parent-Reared Whooping crane chicks this year but getting into the U.S. is problematic. A number of Ports-of-Entry along the U.S/Canada border are able to process live animals imported into America but they normally deal with livestock transported by trucks or trains. The closest Port-of-Entry at an airport is in Chicago, but the only commercial aircraft flying between Calgary and Chicago does not have cargo doors to its pressurized hold that are large enough to accept the custom made crates in which the cranes are shipped. So we are desperately seeking a generous pilot to fly these precious birds from Calgary, through Chicago to the airport at Oshkosh, which is 25 miles from the White River Marsh.
The flight is not needed until mid to late September but we must find someone before the team at the Calgary Zoo go to all the work of Parent Rearing these chicks only to find we have no way to deliver them. We are looking for a Cessna Caravan type aircraft so if you know of anyone with a large aircraft, a love of birds and a philanthropic spirit, please pass on our plea.