Late Friday afternoon an email message chimed into my Inbox and changed everything. The FAA issued a rule-making decision granting an exemption allowing Operation Migration to fly.
A process like this can take as long as three months or better, and even then, granting an exemption only happens when the agency feels the petitioner has satisfied two primary criteria.
One of those requirements is that it must have benefit to the American people. We answered that question by first talking about the birds and how WCEP now has a population of Whooping cranes migrating in the eastern flyway where none existed for over one hundred years. Then we outlined the education opportunities that provides, like the millions of students reached by Journey North, and the unprecedented media coverage from around the world.
You, our supporters and the public, also answered that question by adding your names to petitions, writing to political representatives, and providing your support when we most needed it. We will be forever grateful.
The second criterion is safety and it was not as easy to satisfy. The only aviation license that allows a pilot to be paid for flying is a commercial rating. After a person has earned that certificate, they can add endorsements, like approval to fly multi engine aircraft or float planes. Unfortunately there is no endorsement for the weight-shift aircraft we currently fly.
Currently our pilots hold Light Sport Aircraft certificates and the FAA has required us to upgrade to Private licenses. That means we will have to log some hours of dual time flying with an instructor before undergoing both a written and a flight test. Recognizing that will take time, the FAA has allowed us until the beginning of this year’s migration to comply.
They have also required that our pilots have at least 250 hours of time in a trike. That is the minimum time needed to qualify for a commercial license, but an easy one for us to meet because we all have more than a thousand hours logged and some of us are almost up to 3000.
Of course the other safety factor is the aircraft itself. There are two classes of aircraft within the Light Sport category. The type we have are called Experimental, and are owner maintained, which means we can do all the work that is needed to keep them flying. The other class is called Special, and those aircraft are used for flight instruction – one of the only types of commercial flying allowed in Sport Light Aircraft. This class of aircraft must be maintained by an FAA licensed mechanic and there must be accurate records kept of the work that is done. The FAA has required that we switch over to Special Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSA).
Most of the S-LSAs available are designed to withstand the rigors of pilot flight training and are heavy. That means they fly faster than ours, and in fact, too fast to lead birds. We will have to work with a manufacturer to re-design an aircraft to be lighter and fly slower yet still fit into the Special category. Acknowledging that will not be a simple task, the FAA has given us until 2014 to comply. In the meantime we will have our current aircraft inspected every 100 hours to ensure they are airworthy.
As you can imagine this exemption brings great relief. Sunday is the beginning of April and the deadline our WCEP partners gave us to obtain a favorable ruling in order to be allocated birds for a 2012 ultralight-led migration.
We are very grateful to everyone for all the support we received, and to the FAA for understanding how important this project is to conservation of Whooping cranes – and to the thousands of people who follow it.
It is easy to be critical of a large government agency, but the FAA is in charge of ensuring safety in something inherently dangerous. That is a serious responsibility. To us, they were professional, cooperative, diligent, and yet understanding. We want to thank the FAA and all the people responsible for this decision and for their contribution, not only to safety but to conservation.