December 11, 2011: The air was dead smooth as I landed by the pen and gave the thumbs up for the crew to release the birds. They all came out and stood at attention but none of them flew. I revved the engine, which usually gets them stimulated but they looked as if they had forgotten the script, eyes wide, necks straight, all wondering what was supposed to happen next. Finally I turned around to encourage them and just as I did the penny dropped. In unison, they all took off —leaving me pointed the wrong direction. They flew down the valley in the cold morning air and I move into the lead from just below them. By 100 feet over the ground, they were all in a perfect line off the right wing.
I picked the lowest spot to clear the trees and climbed slowly over the forest to the south. All of the birds stayed on the wing as we slowly gained altitude. Unfortunately, the higher we got the more headwind we faced. By 1,100 feet we were down to 28 miles per hour over the ground.
The birds closest to the wing gets the most benefit. The ones at the end of the line have to work the hardest. Generally that is counter to the dominance structure. Usually the most aggressive, push their way to the front and the subservient birds, generally the smallest, are at the back where they have to work the hardest. Looking down at the ground the landscape crept by at a snail’s pace and the GPS told us we had two hours to go. After another thirty minutes, a higher altitude and more headwind, it still read two hours.
Maybe it was our slow progress or maybe they just got tired of swimming upstream, but for some reason, they all turned back. I circled and collected them all but they broke again. Richard moved in to pick up the one farthest away and that encouraged a few more to break. The flock divided and five went to Richard while the other four stayed with me. I was a quarter mile behind Richard so he moved left and I moved right to discourage them from the indecision of which aircraft to follow. As the headwinds slowed us even further, this division helped. With fewer birds on each wing they all got more benefit and we were able to increase our airspeed, if only marginally. We crossed the Tennessee River and watched the ground roll by like drying paint.
It took us 2 hours and 36 minutes to cover 67 miles. The closer we got, the slower we went and at one point we were only making 17miles per hour. I was five miles from the destination and still had 20 minutes of air time.
Brooke passed us once we were close, and landed first. The field was freshly plowed and planted in winter wheat and the landing was very rough. He radioed me to avoid it if I could, and he ran to the middle of the field to call the birds down. This has worked very well in the past and as I flew over his head, three of the birds landed beside him.
Number 6 however decided he didn’t like this spot and stuck with the aircraft. I did another low pass pretending to land. When his wings were cupped and his legs moved forward as if he was about to touch down, I added power and climbed as hard as I could. Instead of landing he climbed with me stuck on my wing like glue. Eventually I was 500 feet above her but she followed nonetheless. If I flew north he followed ignoring Brooke and the other birds. For fifteen minutes I led him back and forth past his flockmates but he refused to land.
By this time Richard arrived with his five birds. I was confident he would fall in with them and land with Brooke but as they dropped in beside him, #6 latched onto Richard’s wing and refused to land. For a total of thirty minutes we circled before he finally gave up and landed.
If anyone from the north end of Russellville, Alabama finds a small video camera with the name Duff on it, embedded into the front lawn, please send us the memory file.
In fact maybe that is why #6 refused to land. Maybe he was minding his own business, setting up an approach to land, when all of a sudden something shiny hit him in the head.
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