The Hero in Richard Pulls Them Through
By Joe Duff, Operation Migration Field Journal 12/13/08 Entry 3

"After 2 hours and 17 minutes we landed with nine birds on crusty snow over wet grass. For a time we thought we would have to turn back and wait for another day, but the hero in Richard pulled us through."
Joe Duff
words and photo

Yesterday morning the birds were penned in a little valley, and the wind rolled over the hills to cause what is known as mechanical turbulence down low. It was Richard’s turn to lead and I wasn't envious as he landed on the frosty grass and prepared to launch. All but one bird came out of the pen, and off Richard went fighting the wing to keep it as steady as possible so the birds could follow it. About a mile out and 200 or 300 feet up, he hit another turbulent layer and the birds broke up. First one, then another turned back and Richard circled to pick them up.

The one bird that stayed in the pen was 827. The ground crew managed to shoo him out, and he took off in pursuit of his flock mates. I was flying chase and dropped in to pick him up just as Richard made his turn. I led 827 to the south and began to climb. It's far easier with only one bird, and it wasn’t long before we reached the smooth air at over 800 feet.

The winds up high were strong out of the north, but I didn’t want to get too far away so I turned back to wait for the rest. Heading into the wind our progress slowed to only 12 miles per hour as we watched Richard struggling below. For over an hour we circled above, working our way north, then tuning south to blast back.
For that entire time Richard collected the birds and turned them on course only to have them break again. He passed over the pen at least 5 times while the ground crew blew their air horns and paraded the Swamp Monsters. He would get them a few miles away and then have to chase them back.

The morning progressed and the turbulence increased, while Richard repeated the same scenario. He’d intercept the flock, get them settled on the wing, turn them on course, and then have to chase them as they tried to go back to the pen.
There is a point when frustration and fatigue finally beat the optimist out of you, and it’s time to give it up. Just as we reached that juncture the birds broke once more — but this time they split into two groups. Six birds formed on Richard’s wing and slowly began to climb. Brooke dropped in to pick up the others and managed to collect 3. Chris tried to lead the remaining 4 birds, but after an hour and six minutes, they'd had enough and they landed in a field a few miles from the starting point. Chris circled until Brian arrived, then he took off to catch us.

Richard’s climb was slow. He banged around just above the trees for another 20 minutes before finally reaching calm air. Brooke was off to the right and climbing well, while number 827 and I watched from above.

Crane #803 was flying at the back of the line and not getting much benefit from the wing. After an hour and 20 minutes airborne,#803 decided it was time to quit and started to drop. Richard lost most of his precious altitude trying to retrieve him, but finally just had to let him go. Crane 827 and I dropped down to see if 803 would follow us, but he was determined to land.

#827 over snowy Alabama
Photo Joe Duff

Chris managed to catch us by then. He took over the care of 803 while 827 and I tried to regain the altitude we'd lost. We flew up a valley and through some air so rough that I left the seat several times, giving me sense of what Richard had experienced for an hour. But 827 seemed to sense the seriousness of the situation and stayed close to the wing. We found some lift and circled four times to gain altitude. With each rotation it became smoother and we finally turned on course again at 2200 feet. With 20 miles to go we listened to Chris relay coordinates to the top cover aircraft so they could tell the tracking van where 803 had landed.
As we passed into Alabama, the snow accumulation on the ground increased until everything below us was white. I knew the ground crew back behind us would have a tough time moving our trucks and trailers over snow covered roads.

After 2 hours and 17 minutes we landed with nine birds on crusty snow over wet grass. For a time we thought we would have to turn back and wait for another day, but the hero in Richard pulled us through.

Try This! Journal Question

  • What actions made Richard the team's hero today? What would you like to ask Richard?


Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure presented in cooperation with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).