Piatt County to Cumberland County
from Operation Migration Field Journal
entry by Pilot Joe Duff

Ultralight Pilot Joe Duff

November 16, 2010
When you have been grounded by south winds for as long as we were, a number of things begin to change. The local postman adds you to his daily route, the garbage man begins to make an extra stop, and the cashier at the grocery store starts calling you by name. Also, the gremlins move in.

Two of those little trouble makers infested our aircraft as they sat idle for nine days. One of them crawled into my radio and garbled everything that anyone said to me. It seems that my transmissions were loud and clear but everything I received sounded like it came from a mouth full of dry potato chips and sand.

The other gremlin refused to let Brooke’s aircraft start. We use a rope and handle to pull start our engines, much like a lawn mower, except they produce about ten times the power. It doesn’t take many pulls before that method gets tired. Something in the combination of choke and throttle just would not cooperate. Richard and I circled overhead as Brooke and a number of eager helpers changed the plugs and pulled the air filter. Our stay in Piatt County was too long and the weather too good to wait so we decided to launch anyway.

A Wayward Bird Brings Trouble
Just because we decided that one of us was going to lead the flock on the next leg of the migration does not mean that the birds had any intention of following. In another attempt to get #2-10 to follow, we let him out with the rest of the flock. Surprisingly, he did circle around with us a few times slowly gaining altitude. But it wasn’t long before he broke off and began his descent. He turned many of the birds back with him. As we passed over the pen one more time, the swamp monsters discouraged any of them from landing.

Down Like a "White Paper Bag Full of Rocks"
From a hundred feet above I collected 10 birds that were generally following him and watched as he approached a tall leafless tree line. I was shocked when he didn’t turn away, but instead made a desperate and foolish attempt to climb. Then he hit the top branches and tumbled through like a white paper bag full of rocks. He hit the ground spread eagle as I passed over, but by the time we turned around, he was already out of sight. We found out later that he miraculously escaped injury but once again had to make the trip in a crate.

Help! Help!
Maybe that bird set the trend, but from then on, one or two birds kept turning back and taking the rest of the flock with them. We circled around ten or more times until the ground crew were exhausted from swamp monstering around the pen. We even called one of the trucks onto the field to honk its horn!

Richard moved in to help corner them and we managed to get them a mile or two south. But every time they formed on the wing, one, then two, then the rest would break and head back. Eventually three broke and Richard turned on course with seven. I circled back to chase the three. As long as I was moving towards the pen, all three would follow but every time we headed on course, they would break away. After a while, it became obvious that one of them was the culprit and interested in a pond next to a farm house.

Finally On the Way
By this time, Brooke was able to get airborne and he came over to help. I was hoping to break them up and separate the bird that was determined to go back. That almost happened two or three times but the birds would regroup in the air on their way back. Brooke collected them one more time and headed west and after 58 minutes, we finally left the pen area.

Pilot In Search of #2
Crane #2-10 was still missing. It was hard to explain over the radio where he was last seen. I climbed high and turned back to conduct an aerial search. The birds saw my aircraft turn and even from 500 feet over them, the birds following Brooke took that as an invitation to turn back. After another few miles on course, Brooke had them lined up again and I managed to escape from behind and headed back to help find #2.

Halfway back I heard over the radio that the ground crew had found #2 safe and sound. So I turned on course yet again. It’s almost impossible to find a white-winged trike and three white birds in a hazy overcast environment with five miles visibility. It took me most of the trip to catch up to them. We rendezvoused five miles from the destination and began a slow descent.

A Good Ending
It didn’t work out the way I planned, but they all made it eventually and that is all that counts. Personally, I think number 2 is appropriately named.

Journal or Discussion Questions

  • Which of today's difficulties described by Joe do you think is the worst? How do you think he felt when he finally landed?
  • Would you rather be a pilot, or one of the ground crew for this migration? Why?
  • Teamwork was important for the pilots and ground crew to face today's challenges. Think about teams you have been part of. What make it a good team experience? A not-so-good team experience?