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A Wild, Scary Ride
November 22, 2006: Migration Day 49
From the Flight Log of Chris Gullikson, Operation Migration Pilot

Photo Chris Gullikson, Operation Migration

A Good Start
Getting airborne we were greeted by very calm conditions and just a slight push from the northeast. Broken fog covered some of the valley, but we had plenty of room to make a safe departure with the birds. I landed at the pen, motioned to the waiting ground crew to release the birds, and took off with 17 birds, who quickly formed on my wing. One bird was late leaving the pen and Joe was able to drop in and pick up the straggler.

I was fully expecting to have to fly a few circuits in the valley to gain the needed altitude to climb over the dam, but the birds were flying quite strongly and we quickly were able to gain enough altitude to clear the wall by just flying straight out on course. It was a beautiful sight going over the top of the dam with 17 chicks in tow, the rising sun illuminating these beautiful birds with an incredible backdrop of fog, water, and towering bluffs. Had this been Indiana, this would have been the end of this write-up. However, we are just entering Tennessee and a long climb awaited us to get over the very hilly terrain that lies north of the Cumberland ridge.

The Air Turns Choppy
Just a few miles on course we started to get the first hint of what kind of flight we were in for. It was windy aloft and the rotors coming off the leeward side of the hills were making it a turbulent flight and not allowing me to climb with the birds. Gaps kept forming in the line, and the birds in the back would drop down low, losing the benefit of the vortex that comes off the wing.

With precious little altitude to spare to keep the birds on the wing, I eventually had to allow 6 birds to drop off at about the 20 mile marker. After several tense minutes, Richard was able to move in on these 6 birds and pick them up on his wing while I continued to fly on with the remaining 11.

Losing Birds
I was now able to initiate a slow climb through the turbulent air while Richard struggled below me with his six birds who were obviously worn out from trying to catch back up with me.
During one of the many encounters with turbulent air, I found myself surrounded by birds. They were out in front of me on either side, and two birds were flying just off the nose of my craft. I gingerly backed out and away from these two birds then climbed above them, all the while being tossed around in the unstable air. During all of this excitement, six more birds dropped back behind me, this time opting to drop down to Richard instead of waiting for me to pick them back up.

Now, with 5 birds on my wing, I was able to do a much more aggressive climb and finally broke out of the rough air.

A Terrific Team Effort
It was Richard who now had a battle on his hands. He had 12 birds down low in the turbulence and was struggling to climb them. One bird dropped off his wing and quickly fell too far below him for him to do anything about it. Brooke went down to pick up this bird — who was now riding the lift along the side of the hills — but it was just way too rough and he had to climb out.

As Richard continued to struggle in the rough air with his 11 birds, Brooke kept watch from above on the one lone bird that was slowly making progress south in a very jagged line. I know that all of us were having thoughts of birds landing somewhere on this very hilly and forested terrain. It would be very difficult to locate the dropouts, much less be able to get to them. Eventually we broke out of the hills though and found ourselves out over more hospitable terrain with actual fields to land in, if the need arose.

Richard was still struggling to climb with his 11. But now he had smoother air to work with. Joe watched from above with his single bird while Brooke lagged behind us, continuing to watch the other lone bird slowly make progress southward behind us. At long last we had the field in view where our travel pen was setup.

Dangerous Descent
I began a slow decent from 3,000 feet, my five birds glad to finally have a rest. At 1,500 feet, I was once again buffeted in trashy air. With my trike pointed east into the wind I hung nearly motionless as I descended towards the ground, my five birds spread out above and behind me. At 200 feet above the runway, it was time to stop worrying about the birds and concentrate on getting my butt safely on the ground.

Finally! Safe Landings for All
Zooming down through the turbulence, I lined myself up along the very narrow path that led to the pen, my arms pumping madly to cancel out the wild gyrations. I managed to keep the shiny side up, pinned my windward wing to the ground, and climbed out of my trike and looked about. My birds were nowhere in sight!! It seems they decided to circle back to Richard, for when I spotted him he had 13 birds with him, with another group of 3 back behind him.

Richard was soon safely on the ground, followed by Joe then Brooke. The lone bird that Brooke was keeping track of managed to fly nearly half the distance without assistance from the trike.

After putting the birds into the pen and getting the perimeter hot wire in place, we retired to the safety of some trees a few hundred yards away. Our view of the pen blocked, we pulled off our helmets and in low voices recounted the wild journey we had just made.

Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure presented in cooperation with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). Copyright 2006 Journey North. All Rights Reserved.
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