The aviation community is rife with one liners, smart-mouth comments and little gems of wisdom. My brother, the helicopter pilot, once told me that if God had wanted man to fly, he would have given him more money! He also said that you can make a small fortune in aviation, as long as you start with a big one.
One of Brooke’s favorites is, “I’d rather be on the ground wishing I was flying, than flying and wishing I was on the ground.” The “wishing I was flying” part is what I went through, until recently.
As part of our exemption, the FAA asked us to upgrade our pilot licences from Sport Light category to Private. That wasn’t difficult, but timing was an issue. The only instructor and examiner able to do that on the type of aircraft we fly is a father/son team from Wisconsin. According to the rules, your instructor cannot be your examiner, so the son flew off the hours we needed and prepared us for the checkride with the father. The problem was, that both of them have real jobs and one is an active airline pilot who does six day sojourns to Asia. Finding days when he was “in country” and so was I (coming from Canada) was not easy. Then we had to factor in the weather.
Both Richard and Brooke were able to complete the process before the migration began, but I was not. With only six birds (now five) this year however, we decided in the spring to use only two aircraft. That would leave another experienced person on the ground and reduce the size of the team we needed.
When the migration started my ambition was to take the first opportunity and complete my check ride, then to take my turn flying. The problem was that every decent flying day we had, was also a day we moved the birds one step closer to Florida. However, by the time we reached Kentucky, we were in a different weather pattern than the examiner in Wisconsin. A bad day here might be a good day there. At least that’s what I hoped.
What really made it all work was the generosity of John Cooper and David and Linda Boyd. All three are long time volunteers on our migration team. And as it happened, all three were available at the same time. That meant that I could relinquish my ground duties for a short time and finally get my check ride completed.
I rented a car and drove north 8 hours only to wake up the next morning to zero/zero conditions. In pilot talk that means no visibility and no ceiling height. In other words, you couldn’t see across the street. We drove to the airport twice hoping it might be better there, but instead we spent most of the day talking about flying and politics (it was election night). Finally, in the late afternoon, the conditions cleared and I passed my check ride with flying colours (excuse the pun).
For the three pilots that fly on this project, the reward for all the time away from home and the long hours is the opportunity to fly with the birds. It is hard to give up any chance to take to the sky with a string of birds trailing off your wing tip. I likely know that better than anyone, so I found it difficult to ground one of the other pilots just so I could have my turn in the air. This is supposed to be about the birds, not personal gratification so I grounded myself, at least for while, and it gave me an opportunity to see what the ground crew goes through each day.
When the team skipped two stopovers last week, the ground crew had to drive for four hours to catch up. I was driving our big pickup truck pulling our longest trailer when the electric brakes failed. Luckily I found an RV Center nearby so I stayed behind to get it fixed. We checked connectors, replaced the actuator, and finally, after 4 hours, ran a dedicated wire from the hitch to the brakes. That cured the problem. But by this time it was after dark and the team was waiting for their home away from home to arrive at the next campsite.
Not familiar with the roads, I made the mistake of following my GPS which took me down a narrow laneway on the opposite side of the airport from where our camp was located. Unfortunately this lane was a deadend, but not posted, a fact I discovered when I reached the end.
In the pitch black I had to back up a 32 foot trailer stopping every 50 feet or so to make sure I wasn’t about to hit anything or drop the trailer over the edge. I made a desperate attempt to turn around in a too narrow laneway and had to use four wheel drive to pull myself out of a muddy hole. Straight again, I continued my slow backwards progress until I reached a farmhouse whose owners came out with flashlights to check on the commotion on their normally quiet street.
Soon there were three neighbors shining lights in my eyes to make sure everything was under control. They generously allowed me to use a portion of their driveway and even a little of their lawn to turn around. Wedged between a tree, a fire hydrant, and a trampoline, I had an inch to spare and I thought the trailer was about to roll over when the wheels on one side tracked into a ditch.
We had started that day at 5:00AM and finished at 10:00PM. I spent most of that time looking up and wishing I was flying.