Up, Up and Over the Cumberland Plateau, 2002
By Joe Duff, Operation Migration


Photo OM /WCEP
NOTE: Ultralight pilot Joe Duff described the difficult flight of Nov. 18, 2002, in the flight log. On the previous flight they had hoped to get to Cumberland County but had to stop short due to headwinds. This left them with a 67-mile leg to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge—but first they had to clear the 2800-foot peaks of Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau. In the flight log, Joe describes this "hairy" day:

A Mountainous Challenge
When we took off, this formidable obstacle [mountain ridge] loomed in the distance some 40 miles south. But headwinds slowed our progress to 17 mph. Brooke was to lead. All but one bird followed him when he took off. Richard circled the pen to encourage the loner, while I stayed close behind Brooke in the chase position. The headwind at low level was strong but predicted to swing around to lend us some assistance as we climbed higher.

Birds, unlike ultralight pilots, are not stupid enough to paddle upstream and all but two of Brooke's fifteen birds turned back to avoid the headwind. I turned on my loudspeaker and was able to get them to follow. Now passing through 500 feet, our ground speed was up to 28 mph and we were far enough from the pen that the birds were reluctant to break away.

A Tough Climb Higher
We began a slow, steady climb of 100 feet per minute as the ominous ridge grew larger ahead of us. Richard was finally able to persuade crane #209 into the air. But he was 2 miles behind Brooke with his two birds and me with 13. Bill stayed behind Richard to act as his chase and from their conversation it was obvious they were having problems right from the start. We had an alternate stop at the northern base of the ridge but landing there meant a hard climb on the next leg so we had hoped to avoid it.

One of Brooke's birds seemed to tire early; Brooke had to slow and descend several times to let it catch up. By the time we approached the ridge, we were at 3500 feet and crabbing sideways in a westerly headwind. We had just made the decision to over-fly our alternate and continue on to Hiwassee when one of Brooke's birds began to descend. Brooke had to make a couple of 360-degree turns to get it back on the wing, and we began to separate in the vastness of the mountains. From his distant vantage point, Brooke was able to report that the last bird in the formation off my left wing had dropped down 200 feet below me.

Tired Birds: Will They Make It?
I led all the other birds down to get the low bird, but he kept going lower. I knew the effort was futile; better to protect the precious altitude the flock had fought so hard for, than to waste it all chasing a tired bird that has already decided to give up. I asked Brooke to watch for the dropout so he could radio its location to the ground crew, but instead he led his two down down to treetop level to retrieve the tired bird.

Happy Ending
Bill was about to land at the alternate to refuel but upon hearing the commotion on the radio, decided instead to continue on to help. He kept track of Brooke and the three very tired birds, scratching their way through the mountains. Brooke circled several times and finally managed to work them over to the backside of Walden Ridge, where a little lift carried them up. Richard, with his lone bird, managed to climb to 4000 feet. But when I landed next to the pond on the refuge, Richard was still 6 miles back and Brooke was another 2 miles behind Richard. The Cumberland Plateau and Brady Mountain have always tested us. But thanks to Brooke's determination, all the birds arrived safely.

Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure made possible by the
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).