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Whooping-Crane Migration Gets the FAA OK

Grnd_trk_hndlrsAfter a lengthy sojourn on a remote field in the countryside of Franklin County, Alabama, a motley group of nine whooping cranes and their avian-impersonating human guides was granted a special FAA waiver on Monday. The approval will allow them to lift off and finish the rest of a seasonal 1,285-mile migratory flight from central Wisconsin to their wintering grounds on Florida's west coast.

The expedition, led by the wildlife organization Operation Migration and designed to reintroduce the endangered birds to a defunct Eastern flyway, was voluntarily grounded in late December after the FAA got complaints about, and launched a formal investigation into, how the costumed band of conservationists was violating an arcane rule that forbids paying pilots of light-sport aircraft.

"Normally, the FAA limits light-sport aircraft and pilots to personal flights without compensation,” a statement released by the FAA reads. “Because the operation is in ‘mid-migration,’ the FAA is granting a one-time exemption so the migration can be completed. The FAA will work with Operation Migration to develop a more comprehensive, long-term solution.”

The delay complicated the erratic journey, which is usually completed in two- to three-hour morning spurts when the air's calm enough that the cranes can follow three hang-glider-style, rear-engine-propelled planes. "If it starts to get bumpy, that wing moves around too much," says Operation Migration cofounder and pilot Joe Duff, whose exploits were fictionalized in the 1996 film Fly Away Home. Duff says the trip takes 23 to 25 flying days but adds: "The problem is it takes anywhere from 44 to 144 days to get that."

Besides weather issues, pilots must often wrangle the uncooperative birds into their wake. “Sometimes there’s a rodeo for up to an hour, so you never know,” Duff says. “It’s a real delicate art getting them up to altitude. It may take you 50 miles to get up to 500 feet.”

Not to mention that all the handlers and pilots must constantly don unwieldy white bird suits and alien-looking visors to conceal their skin and eyes. They also coax the birds with crane puppets and conduct their work in complete silence to make sure that the birds aren't confused about their identity. 121_2169

"It is a very difficult protocol," Duff says. "The idea is we're trying to disguise the human form so they're unfamiliar with it. You want to make sure these birds know they're whooping cranes." If the protocol isn't followed exactly, the birds may even try to breed with humans. "You don't want a 5-foot-tall bird to be friendly to people,” Duff explains.

If the FAA hadn’t come through, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, of which Operation Migration is a part, discussed shipping the birds in individual containers to the migration terminus. But this would have significantly reduced the chances of the cranes making the return trip on their own.

“We were elated,” Duff says of hearing the news. “I think the FAA recognized the importance of this and were very cooperative and supportive."

Duff hopes the FAA will find a more permanent solution for his organization's unique conservation efforts. As for an exact departure date for the rest of the trip, the team will just have to wait for calm, crisp winds to flow into that Alabama field.

--Ryan Jacobs / images courtesy of

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