Cranes head north; Operation Migration granted permission to continue flights

Published April 17, 2012

CHASSAHOWITZKA — The nine wayward whooping cranes that made up Operation Migration's Class of 2011 have begun their migration north, and, despite earlier concerns, they won't be the organization's last.

The Federal Aviation Administration has granted the group an exemption to the rules that grounded the ultralight-led flights and cranes for several weeks this past winter.

That delay and weather issues, including an unseasonably warm winter, are thought to have contributed to the shorter-than-usual Wisconsin-to-Florida flight. The birds got no farther than northern Alabama, where they simply stopped following the ultralights they were taught were their parents.

Some of the birds were supposed to fly to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle, and others to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, straddling Citrus and Hernando counties. It was the first time the migration was cut short in the 11 years that a coalition of organizations has worked to reintroduce migratory whooping cranes to the eastern United States.

The young birds spent the past two months at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Ala., learning how to exist in the wild alongside other whooping cranes and sandhill cranes.

The other wild birds started their migration weeks ago. On Thursday morning, ultralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker reported to an Operation Migration staff member: "(The whooping cranes) are gone. I watched them thermal and climb higher and higher for the past hour and they're now out of sight. Be safe."

At last report, the cranes were already within 10 miles of one of their Kentucky migration stops.

Late last year, the FAA put Operation Migration on notice that the nonprofit organization was violating a rule that prohibits ultralight pilots from being paid. A temporary waiver was granted to complete the 2011 migration; then a permanent solution was sought. To get the exemption, Operation Migration had to prove that there was a public benefit and that the flights were safe, according to an online post from the organization's founder, Joe Duff.

Duff said the history of the project, which brought migratory whooping cranes back to a geographic area where there had been none for 100 years, and the strong support of crane enthusiasts satisfied the first point.

To meet the safety test, pilots will have to upgrade their credentials from light sport aircraft certificates to private licenses. While each has many more flight hours than required, the pilots will have to log flying time with an instructor and take written and flight tests.

They will also have to change to a different aircraft designation, and the organization must work with a manufacturer to design an aircraft fitting the new category, but flying slowly enough to lead the cranes.

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Operation Migration has until 2013 to accomplish that.

"We are very grateful to everyone for all the support we received, and to the FAA for understanding how important this project is to conservation of whooping cranes and to the thousands of people who follow it," Duff wrote.