Day in the Air: Pilot's Perspective
November 29, 2001 Our mornings have become almost ritual: fuel the aircraft, tie downs undone, ball up the ropes and zipper them into the wings, and remove the tarp that has kept the cockpit free of the heavy condensation. Brakes set, a couple of squirts of the primer, ignition on, choke on, throttle cracked, pull once, twice. The engine vibrates into life shaking off a spray of the remaining dew; next, while the engine warms I pull on the costume, headset, helmet and hood in that order. Then gingerly I climb in and wait for the engine to come to temperature. Radio on, headset plugged in, and checked, GPS on and destination set, ignition check then seat belt clipped and the bungee securing the control bar released. Deke and Joe have gone through the same routine.
We taxi to the west end of the field and one, two, three we climb into the golden sun that has just broken over the horizon. The ground fog this morning is really mist compared to the last two days. The question is will # 5 fly this morning? We orbit around the field that has been home to the crane pen for the last two days and wait for Dan's signal on the radio. He does a little purr that actually sounds more like a burp when he is ready to do the release. Deke, with dismay in his voice, claims only 20 mph ground speed on heading. Joe tries the same at tree top level and gets a reading closer to 30 mph. There is a brief interchange interrupted by Dan's signal and Deke wings in for the pickup. From my vantage, higher and to the north, it looks perfect with the birds emerging from the pen, taking wing and staying with Deke from the start. I hear Joe commend Deke on the timing. Deke leads only five birds out, #5 is still poorly and voluntarily stays in the pen to travel in the van along with #4. On heading Deke's lead is short-lasted. The birds break and three move over to Joe's wing. The air is smooth and the image of the two craft with their entourage is silhouetted against wisps of sunlit mist threaded through the treetops.
I fly a couple of hundred feet higher and shoot video. This morning the video camera works, for the past two days the camera has balked at the near saturation humidity and shut itself down. Today I kept it in a plastic bag until airborne then with some difficulty extracted it in the 40 mph breeze that constantly tries to rip things from our hands. Keeping at tree top is the only way to progress. If I climb to five hundred feet the headwind is so strong even at 50 mph airspeed Deke and Joe, who are flying at ten miles an hour less airspeed, are making better time across the patch work of reforestation and cow pastures.
For a time we parallel a power line then cross over and are soon flying along a highway. Joe is only a hundred feet up, cruising above the highway. Deke with his two birds is a few hundred feet back, higher and to the east of the highway. A dump truck on the highway catches up and roars by under Joe's group and the birds explode up, frightened by the rumbling behemoth. Joe veers west and the birds regroup on his wing. Deke's two break off from his wing and slide downward over the highway to join Joe's group and the five string off his left wing for the duration of the flight.
We pass over patches of misted pastures with great knarly trees erupting through the silken shroud. In one field a small fire creates a fifty-foot tall flattop mushroom with a wisp that wanders strangely southward over the field. Strange because the wind is decidedly out of the southeast. At another location we pass over a few farm buildings and standing in the field facing the road is a strange apparition, a huge scale Santa Claus reminding me that it is almost December. In another field a family of pigs who have been rooting in the white sand tilt their snoots skyward and intently watch as we pass over.
As expected, the air starts to get slightly bumpy. The open fields grow fewer and farther apart as we near the airstrip of Ron and Maryanne Manna's near Branford. As we cross his field, I wave to Ron and two neighbors out on the runway watching our passage.
I speed ahead to the landing site a few miles farther on and find it lightly misted. It is pockmarked pastureland surrounded by cypress and pine. I shoot an approach to show Joe the landing area he acknowledges the location. I climb up and around to the north and he does a circuit while Deke lands into the sun, throwing up a spray of sunlit dew. I then follow Joe in videotaping a nearly perfect crane plane formation landing. We have covered another twenty miles in forty-one minutes--at this rate Florida is the longest state yet.
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