Updated 10-Jan: A one-time exemption has been granted and the migration is expected to resume shortly (see below).
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, whose published mission is “to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world,” has grounded ten whooping cranes and their flight leader for an apparent violation of FAA regulations.
The young birds were attempting to learn a new migratory route, from their summer home in Wisconsin to a new winter home in Florida, behind a surrogate parent — in the form of an ultralight aircraft — when they ran afoul of the bureaucracy.
According to Operation Migration, which has been working since 2001 to re-establish an Eastern flyway for the endangered birds, the earthbound cranes are currently in custody in Atlanta, under the watchful eyes of Operation Migration staff.
At issue is whether the pilot of the ultralight — officially registered as a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) — is being paid to fly. Under FAA regulations, LSAs cannot be flown for hire or as part of business activities. Operation Migration maintains that its pilots are paid for their non-flying duties but that their time in the air is volunteered.
While the FAA supports Operation Migration’s mission and claims to be working on a waiver to resolve the matter quickly, the birds have been grounded since before Christmas — and the issue may not be resolved until spring, when the birds are due back in Wisconsin.
According to Operation Migration’s website:
An FAA waiver would be based on two main factors: safety and public good. OM has never had an aircraft-related accident and its contribution to wildlife conservation is well-established.
Prior to the re-establishment of a Wisconsin-to-Florida flock, there was only one naturally occurring, wild population of whooping cranes in the world. Having recovered from a mere 15 birds in 1941 to nearly 200 today, the flock winters on the Gulf Coast of Texas and in spring migrates north to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.
By establishing a second migratory flock, conservationists hope to reduce the chance that disease, harsh weather or other local condition might wipe out the entire species.
Operation Migration has been granted a one-time, temporary exemption that will allow its pilots to resume flying. Weather permitting, the cranes’ migration could resume as early as Thursday.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, the FAA wrote: “Because the operation is in ‘mid-migration,’ the FAA is granting a one-time exemption so the migration can be completed. The FAA will work with Operation Migration to develop a more comprehensive, long-term solution.”
Operation Migration credited a robust public response, the intervention of public officials — including 3 state governors, several congressmen, and a former U.S. President — and the media for helping to expedite the process.