Flying ultralight aircraft can be the thrill of a lifetime. But for two of the sport’s most celebrated ambassadors, that passion was transformed into an annual celebration of the enduring spirit of wild birds — an act of preservation that took flight again just last week.
Pilots Bill Lishman and Joseph Duff are the co-founders of Operation Migration, a non-profit wildlife conservation project that set out to use ultralight aircraft to help preserve migratory birds. In the 1970s, Lishman was the first Canadian to foot-launch and land a powered rigid-wing aircraft; Duff earned his pilot’s license in the unpredictable wilds of the Yukon Territories. After Lishman successfully led a formation of Canada geese behind his home-built aircraft in the 1980s, he and Duff joined forces to examine the plight of the whooping crane.
It’s little wonder aviators have come to appreciate the whooping crane; the endangered bird flies like a glider, using its two-meter wingspan to spiral upwards on thermals — then glide down effortlessly, repeating the process to cover hundreds of miles in the most efficient manner imaginable.
Whooping cranes’ numbers dwindled from some 1,400 in 1860 to an all-time low of 15 during World War Two. The Whooping Crane Recovery Team — an international governing body charged with bringing the species back from the brink of extinction — attempted to find a way to establish a new migratory flock, without the benefit of older birds who knew the route.
In 1999 they landed upon a unique solution: using the best data from naturalists, they planned a migratory route from a nesting preserve to a good wintering location, and led the young flock there with an ultralight aircraft, taking short crane-size hops over several weeks.
Operation Migration was born of that effort, and a decade later they’re still leading young whooping cranes on the flight of their lives. This year’s migration took off at 7:38 a.m. on Friday, September 28th, with pilot Richard van Heuvelen leading six young cranes on their first trip south.
The ultralight — and its feathered followers — will fly from the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Wisconsin through Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia to finally arrive at the Chassahowitska National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, a distance of more than 1,200 miles.
To follow this year’s journey, visit Operation Migration’s field journal blog.