It was almost two decades ago when we worked with Columbia Pictures to make Fly Away Home. I remember that during one of our preliminary meetings, the producer was concerned that we couldn’t change the hatch dates of geese to better suit their shooting schedule. The availability of the Director or the actors did not change the fact that goslings are hatched in the spring, and even Hollywood could not get around that inconvenience. They were accustomed to getting another trained bear from Russia, or recreating the space center if permission was not granted to use the real one, but no amount of money could persuade a goose to nest in December. Timing is everything.
We face that same timing rule almost daily on this project. On many occasions, one more stop under our belt would have put us on the other side of a weather front and into gentle tail winds, but timing held us back and we sat for days in headwinds.
Usually the only date written in stone is when the eggs are laid, which dictates when the resulting chicks will be shipped to Wisconsin and when they will be ready to start the migration. We must balance that with when the weather usually turns nasty in the fall, but that’s a moving target.
The other anchor points we had to add this year are the requirements of our FAA exemption. The air-regulations are designed to cover just about every eventuality, but who could blame them if they didn’t anticipate the need to teach Whooping cranes to migrate using an aircraft.
The problem is that the only license available to fly for hire (get paid to fly) is a commercial certificate but that license is reserved for the pilots of passenger carrying airliners, or the freight aircraft of companies like UPS. There is no commercial endorsement to fly light aircraft like ours with a hang glider type wing. Additionally, those commercial aircraft are certified and held to a higher manufacturing and maintenance standard than the aircraft designed for recreation. That means there are no regulations that cover our pilots or our aircraft if you want to do more with them than fly for the pure joy of it.
The first factor the FAA must consider when issuing an exemption to the rules is that it must benefit the American People. Safeguarding an endangered species and providing an unprecedented educational opportunity answered that question nicely. The second consideration is safety and that’s why the FAA set some parameters to the exemption they granted.
One of those requirements was to identify our route so they could ensure we were not encroaching on controlled airspace, or flying over towns at low altitudes. A sectional chart is an aviation map that depicts all of the airports, airspace restrictions, navigation aids, flyways, air routes, and areas of military operations. They are so crowded with information that there is hardly room for landmarks like highways, towns, or even lakes or rivers. They are called sectionals because they are printed in sections and it takes nearly 40 to depict the contiguous States.
To lay out our 1285 mile route I used my computer and Heather’s help to stitch together nearly thirty images to create one long map stretching from Wisconsin to Florida. We don’t land at airports, so I used Google Earth to identify the small fields on the properties of our generous stopover hosts. I transferred those coordinates to the sectional chart and plotted the course, but first I printed it out and taped them together to make it easier to mark up the computer copy. All together it stretched for 17 feet across our office floor. When it was all complete, I had a computer file that was 22MB and too large to send electronically until I stepped it down to a useable size. Then I sent it off to the FAA with a list of stopovers and routes including coordinates.
My map, with circles and arrows on each one, moved through the channels at the FAA and came to rest on the desk of the manager of the Regulatory Support Division of the Sport Light Aviation Branch in Oklahoma City. Within one day we received approval of our proposed route. That is the kind of support we have learned is typical of the FAA.
The other prerequisite we must fulfill is to upgrade our pilot licenses from Sport Light to Private. This has not been easy, not because of the difficulty of the task but, again because of the timing.
A Private License is normally held by those who fly Cessnas and Pipers and the like. Until recently no category existed within the Private Licence program for the type of aircraft we fly. There is no reason it could not exist, but no one had pursued it. Naturally there are very few instructors qualified to provide a Private license on a trike. In fact, there are only two I know of. Fortunately, they are a father son team based here is Wisconsin. The problem is that they are very busy and so are we. According to the FAA rules, your instructor cannot be your examiner so the son did the training and the father did the flight testing.
Richard was able to park himself at the local airport with a good WiFi connection and study for several consecutive days, then he wrote his ground school test, logged the required number of hours with the instructor, and passed his check ride with the examiner. He is now qualified. Brooke was right behind him and we found out late yesterday that he had passed his flight test. Based on the high marks of his written test and the 2500 hours he has accumulated over the years, we had every confidence that would happen. He too is now a licensed Private pilot.
I, unfortunately, am running behind them both. I will write my written test this coming Friday and have yet to log the last three hours with the instructor which I need before my check ride. A little time and a couple of good weather days and I should be done. I have no valid excuses except an Annual General Meeting of our Board including an election of new Directors, five days of meetings with the WCEP Guidance Team to develop a five year strategic plan, a visiting film crew from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a Whooping Crane Festival, and some time spent back in Canada at the office and with my wife and daughter.
Fortunately we had already decided that we don’t need three pilots to lead six birds. This year we will take turns flying while the third pilot replaces Walter Sturgeon who normally tracks the birds from the ground. Walter has other commitments and won’t join us until later in the fall. That third, grounded pilot, will be me of course until I am fully licensed.
So all of this is a lead up to the question of when we plan to leave. It is supposed to be all about the birds, and we try to make that our motto, but sometimes logistics get in the way. We have yet to set up the pens at the first two sites, change the wing on Brooke’s aircraft, pack mine in the aircraft trailer, empty our rented hangar, winterize the White River Marsh pensite, pack everything we own into four motorhomes, gather the volunteers, and say our goodbyes. If the weather is good, we will target Friday, still two weeks ahead of our normal departure date. Timing is everything.
THE LAST WORD
Hangar flying is the term used to describe the social activity that takes place around many airports when the weather is too bad to be airborne. Those discussions are rife with stories of how restrictive the FAA is but that is not surprising considering they are charged with the safety of everyone who ventures into the air – from an innocent airline passenger on their way to visit family on the other side of the country, to the weekend aviator who flies his home-built around back pasture.
Henceforth I will take every opportunity to tell my FAA story of cooperation and understanding while they remained cognizant of their responsibility for the safety of this team and all those over whom we fly.