|Cyber Volume III|
By: Wayne Bezner Kerr
couldn't believe it. Despite my own predictions, there he was: # 404, our
beloved but troublesome trumpeter swan cygnet, flapping his eight foot
long wings effortlessly under my left wing. I whooped with glee inside
my helmet, and 404 swung his head my way, almost as if he was checking
to see if I was ready for this. I applied a little more power and we swung
into a left turn over the trees. After years of hard work our dream was
coming true: Ontario trumpeter swans were flying with us, preparing for
their first migration in almost 200 years.
This story began
when my wife Rachel and I moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Much
to our surprise, we were neighbors with Bill Carrick, a well known and
respected naturalist and film maker whom we had met while I had a job working
on the film, Fly Away Home. Bill was the first person to train birds to
fly with motorized vehicles for the purposes of filming their flight. During
the 1970s and 80s, Bill convinced scores of Canada geese to fly with assorted
cars, motorcycles, boats and even radio controlled airplanes. One day he
was contacted by William Lishman, a local artist and ultralight enthusiast.
The rest you might say, is history.
Bill asked me
to visit him on a lake where he was raising geese to be used in the film.
His geese followed a fast boat with a deck big enough to carry actors and
props, allowing some of that famous Hollywood magic to happen. The day
I visited, we cast off and headed out into the lake with a dozen geese.
I was amused to see one of Bill's lovely trumpeters swimming gracefully
alongside. A few hundred yards out, Bill swung into the wind and opened
the throttles. My amusement turned to amazement as the trumpeter charged
across the water, its powerful wings raising plumes of spray and foam before
lifting off and taking up station just above Bill's head. I had become
accustomed to seeing our geese flying during the filming process, but the
size and beauty of the swan almost tumbled my gyro. As we sped across the
lake, the incredible bird drifted across the bow to my side of the boat.
I stretched out my hand and felt it settle gently onto my fingers, its
tremendous wings brushing the top of my head.
Trumpeters are the largest flying birds in the world. 300 years ago they were common in most of North America, but they disappeared as settlers pushed west across the continent, destroying the wilderness as they went. By the turn of the century Trumpeters vanished completely east of the Rockies, and by 1935 there were only a handful known in the lower 48 states.
For over a decade Bill
raised swans for release as part of an attempt to return the beautiful
birds to our part of Canada. He knew that reintroduced birds didn't migrate,
as they didn't have any parents to show them the way. In swans, migration
is tradition that is passed from generation to generation. When we killed
off the swans in eastern North America, we also killed off the migratory
tradition. After the success of the goose experiments he conducted with
Lishman, Bill believed we could use microlight airplanes to return swans
to the Canadian wilderness. My scientific curiosity was piqued, and I couldn't
get the idea out of my head. In a matter of weeks we agreed to work together.
The first year of the project
we raised a dozen
swans and tried to apply the ultralight technique as we had with geese
and cranes. We found that swans are quite different from geese, and we
ran into problems. One of the biggest problems is the lack of physical
coordination and agility of trumpeter cygnets. Compared to geese, trumpeters
are slower, awkward and take three times as long to do anything. Geese
sprint around the yard only a few days after hatching, but trumpeters stumble
and fall down, even when walking on level ground. In the wild, trumpeter
cygnets learn to fly by chasing their parents, brothers and sisters around
their lake. Their headlong charges get faster and faster until, one day,
they find themselves a few meters above the water. The swans often panic
during their realization of first flight, but an uncontrolled splashdown
is unlikely to harm a feather. Our cygnets seemed afraid to risk a crash
on our grass runways. We soon realized that if we were to achieve success
teaching swans to fly with us, we needed to first learn to fly like a swan.
The equipment we used
that year was too old and tired to be converted for amphibious duty in
the rugged Canadian north. Although we had generous support from Falconbridge
Limited, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Aero Club of Canada for
the field and volunteer costs, there wasn't any money to cover new aircraft.
We needed two special aircraft, with a rare combination of speed, range,
handling, climb performance and reliability. After considering almost a
hundred designs and companies, two stood out as perfect for our needs.
After some serious consideration, my wife and I decided to buy the two
new airplanes and loan them to the project.
The lead aircraft has
a tough job description. Its pilot needs enough power to launch the floats
out of the water with a very short take-off run, but must then slow to
just above stall speed while the cygnets struggle to catch up. Excellent
visibility is required, as there may be as many as 15 swans in the air
at one time. Excellent manoeuverability and a wide speed range help the
lead plane form up with the swans, a process that may involve a few minutes
of low level aerobatics before things settle down! A J&J Ultralights
Tukan trike outfitted with the new Mustang 19 meter wing by North Wing
Designs in Marina, California met our needs exactly. A 68 inch Sport Prop
completed the package, making one of the best float equipped microlights
anywhere. We named the trike "Floatzilla", after it's almost
incredible ability to erupt out of the water and climb into the sky. The
wing, trike and prop combination made for an excellent lead aircraft, with
sweet and predictable handling in all phases of flight. The swans seemed
to like it too!
For a chase airplane,
we wanted a two place microlight capable of slowing to the swans' cruising
speed (between 30 and 35 mph) but with a fast top speed. The chase pilot's
job is a bit like a cowboy rounding up horses. Normally, the airplane escorts
the formation of swans and trike. However, if a cygnet decides it really
wants to go exploring, the chase plane helps round it up and bring it back
to the main group. The chase plane also scouts ahead for landing sites,
drops off passengers, introduces friends and volunteers to flight with
swans and handles radio and navigation chores. We chose a Challenger II
equipped with Puddle Jumper floats for this important job. A Challenger
has low wing loading and a low drag fuselage, allowing for speeds between
30 and 85 mph with the floats installed. Puddle Jumper offered a set of
their high quality and light weight floats at a great price. Although none
of us had flown on floats before, the Puddle Jumpers' forgiving handling,
efficient hydrodynamic design and rugged construction made the transition
easy. The Puddle Jumpers have amphibious gear, allowing the Challenger
pilot to switch effortlessly between lakes, rivers, grass strips and controlled
airports. For this job, the floats really completed the airplane.
The cygnets hatched in mid June, more or less when the Challenger kit arrived. Between building two airplanes, answering the phone, exercising the cygnets, raising funds and attracting sponsors the number of daily tasks were incredible. As always, friends, family and loyal volunteers made the difference. By September the swans were ready to test their wings, and so were we.
The swans were understandably
frightened when they first saw the airplanes slip into the water with them.
We tied a long rope to the nose gear, and let the Challenger float into
our inner bay like a huge toy boat. At first, the cygnets would have nothing
to do with this strange machine that swallowed their friend Wayne. Soon
enough, they listened to my patient coaxing and swan closer. Within an
hour swan #404 was pecking away at the Puddle Jumpers, trying to figure
out where I hid the food. When we pulled the microlight up on the shore,
#404 climbed out, cocked his head and stared at the wing. I wondered what
he was thinking.
The swans were quickly learning to use their new-found strength. Their mad dashes across the water beside the aircraft were getting longer and more controlled, although their landings often left a lot to be desired. One swan, #404, began to cause trouble. As the rest of the swans became better and better at flying, he lagged further behind. When we realized that the rest of the swans were stopping to stay with him rather than following the airplane, we knew we needed to take some sort of action. 404's health checked out O.K., but he just didn't seem to have the strength to fly. For a week we left him in his pen while we took the others for their training flights. When the wind was too strong to fly with the microlights, we took 404 out for private flying lessons on the beach. We walked together to the top of the beach, then turned into the wind and sprinted directly at the water, shouting encouragement all the way. After 10 days of this personalized "flight school", 404 was making strong climbs and coordinated turns that would be the envy of any cygnet his age. When he was reintroduced to his group, he was the strongest, highest and fastest flyer of them all.
The project has had many ups and downs since last fall, but we continue to make progress every week. When the Canadian lakes and rivers froze early, we switched to wheels, and then to skis to continue our work. We are learning a tremendous amount about the behavior of these beautiful birds, and are sharing our findings with other conservation projects. We are planning a migration of over 600 km next summer, and even longer journeys in the future. Many people attribute our success to the work of just a few people. The real truth is that we owe much of what we have achieved to the many friends, sponsors and volunteers who have made our work possible. With real thanks, I dedicate this story to them.
I am truly fortunate. Several times a week, I get to enjoy the dream of every pilot. Every time I sit with the engine idling, waiting for the birds to burst from their pens, a thrill of anticipation runs through me. As we rush along and leap into the air, I can't help but be overcome by the beauty of what we do together. Share the air.
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