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Crane Migration Flyover Experience


2010 Migration

It’s 19°F and total darkness when alarms go off at 6 a.m. for pilots, volunteers, and spectators hoping for a successful launch of 11 endangered whooping cranes and three ultralights from the Livingston County, Illinois, stopover on their epic migration to Florida. About 40 people including members of the Heart-of-Illinois ultralight club in Peoria, Illinois, gather before dawn on a country road at a spot designated for the flyover.

Most flights begin soon after sunrise, so the young birds will have light winds and minimal turbulence for their flights which are typically about 65 miles in length. The Livingston County flyover location is barely half a mile away from the takeoff point, so spectators began watching for the appearance of the first “test trike” as soon as the sun cleared the horizon. Operation Migration personnel at the flyover location announced the launch would be delayed a few minutes due to frost on the wings of the trikes (which could jeopardize the safety of the pilots). Soon the first trike appeared above the tree line and began flying back and forth at various altitudes to assess the wind conditions. All too often the effort stops at this point due to wind, but this time the word quickly comes from aviation handheld radios among the spectators that they will go for it.

A second trike climbs above the scene for “high cover,” and the lead trike positions for the release of the birds. The Livingston County launch was captured in this video.

It’s striking to see how the large birds accelerate to close the distance to the trike and also how much work the pilot must do to stay in the correct position. Less than a minute after takeoff, the group was over the flyover point at about 200 feet and the birds are still moving around getting into formation. The pilot can be heard making frequent throttle changes during the flyover to stay in position in front of the birds. An onboard view of a typical launch can be seen in this wingtip camera video.

The camaraderie among the bird lovers at the flyover site is palpable, and the airplane nuts fit right in. Every time the crane migration project takes off, they provide a positive image of ultralights and light aviation. Check the Operation Migration Field Journal to learn their current location and flight plans. If you can’t be there in person, try the live CraneCam especially between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. on mornings they’re expected to fly.


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