First Flight!
By Operation Migration Pilot Chris Gullikson
August 23, 2005

Chris Gullikson's first flight with cranes. Photo Joe Duff, OM.

As the new pilot in training, I have had many first-time experiences since arriving here in June, 2005.
The first time I put on the white crane costume;
• The first time visiting the new arrivals at the north site;
• The first time I taxi-trained the chicks behind the wingless ultralight; and,
• The first time I had cranes fly with me in ground effect.

These were all memorable experiences that will stay with me for a lifetime, but on August 23, 2005, I got to experience the ultimate first, the one I have been dreaming about for years. I shared the air with six young whooping cranes on my wing.

Pilot Training
For the last week I have been flying behind Richard or Joe [experienced pilots] as they train the oldest cohort from the north site. This "chase" position gives me an excellent view of how the birds and ultralight interact with each other. It also allows the cranes to get used to another trike (ultralight plane) being in the air with them. As the chase pilot, my job is to hang back and fly slightly higher than the lead trike and observe what is happening. When the lead pilot turns, I keep to the outside of the turn to discourage the cranes from taking a shortcut and trying to fly towards me. I am also there to pick up any birds that happen to leave the lead trike. It was inevitable that I would be flying with cranes soon...
Photo Joe Duff, OM.

The Big Day Arrives
Joe took off with 6 birds in tow. I pulled into the chase position while the cranes formed up beautifully on Joe's wing — 3 on each side, riding the wave of air generated from the wing. We flew northeast into a slight headwind and headed out over a heavily wooded area. The birds were flying very well is this morning's chilly air, and Joe was able to get them a couple hundred feet off the ground. Everything was going very well until we approached a highway north of Necedah. One bird broke off Joe's wing and decided to head back to the refuge. A couple other birds initially followed the first bird, but then decided to stay with the trike. When they moved, they lost the benefit of the wing's vortex ("lifting" air current). Now they were working hard to catch back up to Joe. These two birds then decided that they would head back to the refuge after all. They again broke away from Joe's trike and flew back to the southwest. Joe gave me the go ahead to pick up the birds, so I veered off to the south. I was able to get a lone bird on my left wing quite quickly. This bird formed up necely on my wingtip. We continued southwest to chase down the two birds that were flying together. Within a few minutes I caught up to these two wayward birds and, as I passed them to their right, they eagerly joined up on my left wing.

Challenge in the Air
Joe instructed me over the radio to turn the birds away from the pen and head back north; we don't need these birds to think they can go back home whenever they want to! I must admit I was not exactly sure which way north was at this point. I had 3 huge birds on my wing and I was too busy trying to figure out how fast I needed to fly to keep them comfortably on my wingtip. Too slow and they would begin to fly out ahead of me; too fast and they would be working too hard to stay with me. I sort of figured it out after a few minutes and was able to get re-oriented with my location.

Perfect Handoff
We were headed west and were already past the north site. I was beginning to feel somewhat comfortable flying with 3 birds when Joe called out over the radio to turn south. He wanted to hand off his 3 birds to me! With a mixture of excitement and anxiety, I slowly turned south. Joe moved in on my left with his 3 birds, slowly pulling up even with me. It was a perfect handoff as Joe pulled sharply up and over the top of me while his 3 birds moved in to join up on my wing.

Landing with Five
I now had 4 birds on my left and one on my right. The 6th bird was nowhere to be seen. Oh wait— there he is, below and behind me to my left, and working hard to keep up. The costumed helmet really limits our peripheral vision and it's difficult to see behind the trike. Joe instructed me to lead the birds back to the pen. I could see that they were getting tired. They were losing altitude and I had to compensate. I dropped down and flew just 20 feet off the deck, maneuvering around the lone trees on the wetlands of the Necedah Refuge. I could not see the north pen site from this altitude. I knew that I was flying in the general direction and that I should be coming to it soon. I cleared a line of trees. The pen was just to my southeast, although I was not lined up on the runway at all. I turned east to fly a pattern to land on the west runway. Joe informed me one bird left my wing, and he moved in to pick it up. I swung around to the west and set up for a landing, my 5 birds still hanging with me. Wait! Joe's bird just broke off and was headed for the field, on a collision course with my trike! I powered up and popped up over the top of this bird, passing just a few feet over it's massive wings. I did a 180-degree circle 10 feet off the deck and set up for a landing back to the east, my 5 birds still on the wing. I touched down and rolled up to the pen, watching these magnificent birds gracefully step out of the sky on either side of my wing.

I wanted to pump my fist in the air and give a shout of joy. Instead, I casually got out of the trike, grabbed my puppet head, and spread out a few mealworms for the birds. They gladly ate them. Joe landed with the bird that had cut me off and taxied up to the pen. Mark and Angie opened up the pen doors and we led the birds back into their pen for the day. Just another normal day of training for the others, but one that will always be a memorable day for me.

Try This! Journaling Questions

• This story is from Chris's point of view. Image you were one of the crane chicks flying with Chris. From the chick's point of view, what message would you like to give Chris?

• From YOUR point of view, what would you talk about with Chris?