Flight School: Eighteen Birds Train Together
By Chris Gullikson
September 25, 2006

It was pilot Chris Gullikson's turn to lead the chicks on takeoff for Flight School on September 25. Chris flew his ultralight plane from the hangar over to the pen site where all 18 birds now live together. He dropped down low to land by the large pen where the birds waited inside. Waiting outside were Marie and Robert, two costumed crane handlers waiting for Chris's signal to open the gates. What signal did Chris use? Read for that answer and a terrific training day story in Chris's words:

"I rolled up to the pen doors, turned on my loudspeaker that broadcasts the brood call, and gave Marie and Robert the thumbs up signal. They swung open the pen doors and the birds stampeded out onto the runway looking very excited to get underway. I find it almost impossible to try and count birds in this disorganized frenzy, so as soon as I saw that all the birds were through the door, I poured on the coals to begin my takeoff—desperately trying to stay ahead of the birds who were airborne and flying right beside me.

Getting the Hang of It
(click to enlarge)

Taking Off: How Many?
"My wheels left the ground after a short 200-foot rollout. I dropped my engine down to 4500 RPM's, flew in ground effect down the runway making a gentle right turn out over East Rynerson. I had a whole bunch of birds with me, some right on the wing, others further back and cutting the corner to catch up to me. I quickly learned over the radio that 2 birds had never made it out of the pen, and that 2 other birds were leaving my trike to head back to the runway. Brooke moved in to work with these 4 birds while I headed past the tower and to the north with 14 birds following in a ragged formation.
This was only our second flight with all 18 birds together, and they haven't quite gotten the hang of flying with each other yet. After 5 minutes of flying low and slow over the Necedah wetlands, they started to get the hang of it and closed up the formation; six birds on my left wing and eight on my right.

Flying Amid Thousands of Birds
"It gets a little crazy this time of year as thousands of birds arrive on the refuge to await migration. Ducks and geese were taking off below us by the hundreds, and the air was filling up fast with flying waterfowl. It's hard enough to keep an accurate count of the birds on your wing, and having this flying mayhem all around you just adds to the confusion. I soon realized that one bird had lost the draft and fallen way behind us. I did a slow 180 degree turn and began a gradual decent to help the bird catch up. The air below was getting pretty rough at this point, so I headed back to the pen with my formation of birds beginning to fall apart again as we got into the trashy air.

A Pretty Good Day
"I landed my group of birds at the pen and Brooke landed shortly after with the three that he had managed to round-up. It was not a very long flight training session, but we felt they did great for just their second time flying together, and considering we haven't been able to fly much due to weather. A few consecutive days of good weather should have all 18 birds flying well together."

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