FAA grounds whoopers and pilots

A pilot leads 12 whooping cranes over the Dunnellon-Marion County Airport on Jan. 27, 2008.

Lee Ferinden/Correspondent/2008 File
Published: Friday, January 6, 2012 at 4:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 at 4:08 p.m.

OCALA – A flock of whooping crane chicks being taught how to migrate by flying behind Ultralight aircraft being operated by Operation Migration Inc. pilots have been grounded in Franklin County, Ala., pending a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration whether to approve a waiver.

The issue involves whether the pilots are flying “for hire,” or for the benefit of the non-profit organization.

Operation Migration aircraft are licensed as light sport aircraft. FAA regulations prohibit flying light sport aircraft for hire or as business activities. Operation Migration maintains that the pilots are hired for many non-flying duties and volunteer their time as pilots.

“We have made an application for a waiver and that's been submitted to the FAA, so it's really in their hands now,” said Liz Condie, Operation Migration's COO and Director of Communications & Fund Development.

The application was made and it was hoped that the matter could be resolved in December, when the crew took a holiday break, but the process has taken longer than anticipated.

Should the FAA fail to grant the waiver, Operation Migration and its Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership partners are developing a plan to complete the migration without aircraft.

“We hope they will look favorably on our application,” Condie said.

The chicks are making their first trek from Wisconsin to their winter home in Florida as part of an effort between the United States and Canada to create a second eastern migratory route for this endangered species in the event the only existing wild flock would become ill or perish.

It has been a treat each year for people to see some of the birds, being led by the ultralights, as they fly over the Dunnellon Airport en route to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River, where they remain for the winter.

Contact Susan Latham Carr at 352-867-4156 or susan.carr@starbanner.com.

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