Top Cover Pilots to the Rescue
Excerpts from Journals, 2001 Migration

Don and Paula, Top-cover pilots for Operation Migration
Flying cranes to Florida isn't always about flying low and slow. Being close to the ground has its problems. For one thing, it's difficult to see other aircraft in the area and two, itís not always possible to communicate with all ground crew members and local air traffic controllers. That's where pilots Paula and Don Lounsbury and their Cessna 182 come to the rescue. Paula and her husband Don have flown in the cover position each Operation Migration since 1993. They have kept watch over the pilots and their charges—first Canada geese, then Trumpeter swans, Sandhill cranes and now the precious cargo of endangered Whooping Cranes. Each day, the Lounsburys leave the overnight camp before sunrise and before the rest of the pilots and ground crew even wake up. Don and Paula drive to where they have their Cessna parked and begin their preflight checklist. The Lounsburys are volunteers. The 2001 Whooping Crane Reintroduction was the 7th migration for this Ontario pair. Here are two journal accounts of their flights during the historic 2001 migration:

October 19, 2001 (By Heather Ray)
Twenty minutes into today's flight, increasing headwinds splintered the flock of seven birds into two groups. With three birds off on their own, Deke closed in and managed to pick them up. Just when everything seemed to be all right, the group of three decided to turn around and head back to their traveling overnight pen. Deke immediately turned 180 degrees and began chasing the birds who were flying a lot faster now that the wind was at their backs. Paula banked the Cessna around and moved to the side where she could see the group of three and Deke's ultralight. She radioed down to Deke, asking if he could see the birds ahead and with the information that if he maintained his heading, he would fly right up to them.

Now that Deke had the cranes back on his wing, he needed someplace to land and confine them. Paula radioed ahead to the ground crew that Deke had turned around and was only minutes away. The ground crew had packed up about half of the overnight pen and was now scrambling to reassemble it!

With Deke on final approach, Paula turned again and began to scan the skies for Joe who had also turned around. For several minutes she searched below, noting how difficult it was to spot the small aircraft and birds. Joe was in radio contact and called out landmarks as he flew. Soon, we spotted him over the Wisconsin River. He was on course heading toward the overnight pen but one bird was lagging far behind. Paula radioed that he was losing one bird and should turn around to pick it up. Joe responded quickly but now, flying toward the bird, he had difficulty picking up its narrow profile against the sky. From her vantage point, Paula could see the trailing bird and Joeís aircraft with the three cranes behind it. Knowing he was on course, she patiently waited for the distance to close. The crane quickly tucked in behind the others following Joe almost as if it was returning to family.

After escorting Joe's ultralight back the overnight site, Paula turned around once again and set a course back to the airfield and hanger. Tomorrow, the little Cessna will once again be high in the sky shepherding its own flock of bright yellow ultralights, white cranes and costumed pilots to their next destination.

November 12, 2001 (By Paula Lounsbury)
A beautiful day dawned in Tennessee, but as the birds and trikes lifted off for the morning departure south, things began to unravel rather abruptly. One uncooperative bird eventually was led back to our departure point by Bill and Deke so he could be boxed for transport in the "bird-taxi." With the unexpected return to the field by Deke and Bill, the three trikes became separated and Joe was once again flying below me, alone with his flock, without the benefit of a chase aircraft. The air was unexpectedly turbulent and the visibility was poor in the morning haze. After deviating from our planned route in search of calmer air, Joe decided it would be wise to land the birds in a field rather than continue to our destination and risk losing a bird enroute. From my position aloft, I first helped Joe select a suitable field in which to land the tiny trike and the cranes. Next I assisted Bill, who was quickly nearing our position, to locate Joe and the birds. Deke was last to come in so I had to first determine exactly where he was and once I knew this, I talked him in to the unexpected stop to join up with his fellow pilots. Next, as if this werenít enough, I radioed the ground crew to advise them that there had been a change of plans and directed them by road to the location so they could set up the temporary pen. All in all a typically busy morning. Now, where did Bill go?

Try This! Journaling Questions

  • What would be most challenging about flying Top Cover? How is the job of this pilot different from flying lead or chase with the ultralight?
  • Have you ever volunteered for something in order to be helpful? What were the rewards for you? What do you think the rewards are for Don and Paula?


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