Operation Migration Sets Record Straight in Recent Temporary Grounding
To the Editors:
It is in the nature of the pilots to complain about the FAA and the news about the temporary grounding of Operation Migration's aircraft and its migrating Whooping cranes in December sparked some strident criticism of the agency from pilots. As a member of the Board of Directors of Operation Migration (OM), an EAA member and a Private Pilot, I'd like to set the record straight.
FAA officials were not the bad guys in this affair — far from it. They have long recognized the value and the uniqueness of what OM is doing for an endangered species, and the high standards of safety that we have maintained in our flight operations.
When the Light Sport Aircraft rule went into effect in 2008, Operation Migration registered and N-numbered their aircraft. From the beginning, we maintained that our staff was paid for a long list of non-flying duties that kept them busy seven days a week, and that for the very small portion of their time that they spent flying, they were volunteers. From 2008 to 2011, we believed that OM's pilots and flight operations were in compliance with the LSA Rules.
That belief was reinforced by the FAA in 2010. When someone outside of OM claimed that our pilots were flying LSAs for compensation, in violation of the FARs, a local FSDO inspector spoke with our attorney and accepted our explanation. The inspector declared the matter closed, telling us that no further action would be taken.
In 2011, the same individual filed a formal complaint and the agency was legally obligated to investigate. The FAA inspected our aircraft in August 2011 and the trikes passed with flying colors. In November, the agency sent letters of investigation to OM and to each of our pilots. Up to that point, the pilots believed they were in compliance with the FARs. But after a discussion with the FAA in December, they voluntarily stopped flying so they would not knowingly fly in violation of the rules. Because of that response, the FAA stated they would take no action against the pilots for prior violations. We voluntarily grounded our planes on 21 December 2011 and no other enforcement action was taken against OM or its pilots.
At that time, agency officials made it clear that they would work with us toward a solution, possibly through a permanent exemption from the "flying for hire" prohibition. A permanent exemption must be published in the Federal Register — a slow process. So, in early January, the agency granted us a temporary waiver from the rule that gives us an adequate window to complete this year's migration from Wisconsin to Florida, while the wheels grind toward a permanent resolution.
Our CEO/Lead Pilot Joe Duff spoke with the director of the Milwaukee FSDO on January 20th. The FSDO director assured him that the agency would work with us to find a long-term solution, and we are confident that will be in place before the next migration cycle begins this spring. We are preparing a case based on the uniqueness of our project so that a permanent FAA exemption will not set a precedent for the commercial use of Light Sport Aircraft.
The officers and staff of Operation Migration are sincerely grateful to the FAA for its efforts on our behalf and its ongoing support of Whooping crane recovery.
You can learn more about Operation Migration, read our daily field journals, and watch the birds on our real-time "Crane-Cam" at www.operationmigration.org.
For the birds,
David Sakrison, Ripon, WI
Board Member, Operation Migration