Air Sports International

Cyber Volume III Microlight

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No Swan Song Here

By: Wayne Bezner Kerr

      I 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. 

Swan runs to take off - D.W.Photo

    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. 

Challenger launches 5 Swans - D.W.Photo

    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. 

Challenger and Trike

    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. 

Scott in Tukan trike

    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. 

Swan nibbles puddle jumper

    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. 

407 flies by - T.H.Photo

    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! 

Scott in trike, Bob, swans get pushed off behind - T.H.Photo

    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. 

Swans launch off with Challenger

    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. 

Wayne and dancing swan with Challenger

    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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