A memorable month
It was early Friday morning when my mom and I left for Russellville Airport.
Well 7 a.m. was early to me anyway. In case you don't know, it rarely snows in Alabama and it had the night before. It was a school day, but there was still ice and snow on the roads so school was cancelled. Hallelujah!
Oh my gosh at the coincidence, the Operation Migration team was arriving that day.
Operation Migration is a non-profit organization that helps birds (in this case Whooping Cranes) migrate that are born in captivity to help prevent extinction and increase the population since they are an endangered species. The migration is from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges in Florida.
As we pulled up to the airport I saw that most of the ultralights that lead the birds had already landed and the birds were being put into pens to protect them from wild life predators. My friend Bill Pugh, Airport Authority Chairman, said that he only saw one bird.
Ah well, we missed seeing their flight, but that's when I got to meet Harry Mattox, the Airport Manager/Flight Instructor of Russellville Municipal Airport. He served in the Air Force and is a veteran of Vietnam and Thailand and also served at McGuire, Seymour, Craig and Egland Air Force Bases. He flew on a C-141 Star-lifter, CH-53 Super Stallion Helicopter, UH-1 Huey Helicopter, and a HH-43 B Pedro Helicopter.
During his service he received the Air Medal, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service, and Distinguished Flying Cross and earned the rank of Chief Master Sergeant.
As more of the team arrived at the airport, some in RVs and some from the field, I was able to talk and meet with them and found out about the different places they are from. Some were from Toronto and Ontario, Canada. Others were from Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Chicago, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Minnesota.
There were 14 birds on this migration with 12 team members, four ultralights and one airplane.
In interviews with Mr. Gerald Murphy, an observer/volunteer, and Beverly Paulan, the supervisor of field operation, I learned many of interesting facts about whooping cranes as well as information on team members I met. Different lifestyles and experiences make this a great team. Joeseph Duff of Canada, a pilot and photographer who loved nature, joined Bill Lishman in 1993 to lead Canada geese form Ontario, Canada to Virginia.
It was their work that inspired the movie Fly Away Home in 1995. He is the co-founder and CEO of Operation Migration. Mr. Duff is also an ultralight pilot during the migration.
Brooke Pennypacker from Florida has an incredibly varied background. With a degree in English literature, he fought forest fires, was a saturation diver, a construction supervisor and hydroelectric developer to name a few of his occupations.
His love of nature and experience as an ultralight pilot and mechanic eventually led him to the Operation Migration team.
Richard Van Heuvelen is an accomplished sculptor from Ontario whose work was featured in IMAX movies and the movie Fly Away Home. His expertise came in handy to build the propeller guards on the ultralights.
Chris Gullikson, an ultralight pilot from Wisconsin, accidentally flew into the path of OM while on migration and later joined the team. He left his career as an electrical engineer and now while not working with Operation Migration, designs English riding saddles that are fitted for both horse and rider.
Beverly Paulan, originally from Chicago, has a degree in Biology, holds several pilot ratings and certificates, owned her own charter service and worked five years as a volunteer Raptor Educator at a Wildlife Rehab Center.
Jack Wrighter, a retired airline pilot who also worked for the Cobb County School System in Marietta, Ga., serves as a volunteer top cover pilot for OM. Gerald Murphy has a background as a schoolteacher and a civilian education specialist, writing training manuals and advancement exams for the Navy. He was a pilot in the US Air Force and completed two tours in Vietnam.
John Martineau serves as a field intern with the team. His degree in Biology, experience teaching emergency service and survival training to Civil Air Patrol Cadets, and love of nature and flight brought him from Minnesota to work with the team.
Liz Condie was raised in Ontario but also lived and worked in Australia, England, France, Spain and the Czech Republic then St. Lucia. Liz has a Masters in Business, and degrees in Communications, Journalism and holds marketing, PR and fundraising certifications, all very helpful to a non-profit program.
Heather Ray is the Associate Director and helps with development. She was also the group's education and outreach contact for four migrations. She is a conservationist and environmentalist applying her experience and dedication to the repopulation of the species.
While disappointed I didn't get to see the birds up-close, I understand normal human contact is avoided to keep the birds wild. I learned the birds are 5 feet tall with a 7 ? foot wingspan. These birds are born with a little white but mostly a cinnamon color and eventually turn white and have a black forehead with red around their eyes.
As you may already know, whooping cranes are migratory birds, meaning they go south for winter. In 1941 there were only 15 whooping cranes in existence, in the next 20-30 years there was a slow increase in the population.
When the birds flew south they had no idea where to go since their parents did not show them, so OM was formed to show them how.
At first they helped Canadian Geese, then practiced with the sandhill cranes, the whooping crane's non-endangered relative. This allowed them to find out useful information and to have supportive hands-on experience. Knowledge gained prepared them for work with the whooping cranes.
One thing I find particularly odd is that sounds of the ultralights are played even before they hatch. The chicks are continually exposed to the ultralights and given treats by costumed workers so they will think the workers are their parents.
At first I thought that flying an ultralight was easy, but in an interview I found out I was wrong. You usually have to fly between 1,000 and 1,500 feet instead of the much higher altitude of an airplane.
Also, if there is wind the ultralight will bob or bounce up and down which makes the birds turn around and go back to the pen.
I had such a great time. This experience had animals, aircraft, history and flight.
I will never forget my time with the team and watching the birds soar through the air, nor will I forget the stories of the OM team or the importance of preserving the species. Maybe I'll see the flock fly back north.
Hopefully, though, the Operation Migration team will decide to continue the migration stopping here again next year.
Submitted by Jeb Howell. Jeb is a 14-year-old area student who has an avid interest in writing and aviation.