October 17, 1996
Bird 107 with her 'rudder' down.
Since we were only 50 miles from home and we needed some more stuff, Kent and I went drove home for the night. Ron and Sherm went back to Salt Lake as Sherm had a gig at the world land speed record event in Reno. Errol and Sharon got a motel and Jim braved the cold to spend the night with the birds.
We rolled onto the Gilbert farm just as the sun line was reaching the pens. Frost blanketed everything including the birds feathers. To survive the cold, they stand with one leg on the ground and one tucked up against their body for warmth. Every so often they alternate legs. As the sun softened the cold, the birds ruffled their feathers to shed themselves of ice crystals. We unwrapped the planes and shook the frost off the canvas to follow suite.
At about 10 am with plane engines warmed, cameras set, and all the neighbors and hired hands watching, Errol took to the air. His red and white Rans climbed steadily to a safe reconnaissance altitude. Jim opened the pens as Kent warbled and taxied a few yards to the east. As the last bird cleared the pen, the Dragonfly roared to life and plane and birds lifted off the ground.
The Cache Valley sky was completely clear. As we raced south on the country road, the plane and birds were strung out above us with all the birds trailing in a line off one wing. Approaching Logan airport, Errol contacted the tower and explained the situation. Only one plane was in sight and it was on final approach. Several times going through the valley the birds would break formation and clump in a panic around the plane. At this stage in their development, its sometimes difficult to distinguish high flying predator eagles from Delta passenger flights.
The entourage of birds, plane and chase vehicles worked its way south towards Paradise and the pass. The air was relatively still except for crosswind blasts coming from Logan and Hyrum canyons. Kent and Errol conversed back and forth about where lift was occurring and whether it would be possible to make the top of the pass with current conditions.
At the bottom of the canyon, where it was still fairly wide, there seemed to be enough lift and the decision was made to climb. Ron and I raced ahead trying to gain enough of a lead to get some good footage of the tour coming through the canyon. Four wheel power slides and cattle guard jumping got us to a point about a mile and a half below the summit. I cranked the Suburban to a stop and climbed on the roof to catch some footage of the plane just thirty feet over my head.
As the plane and birds worked their way through the canyon, lift evaporated. The plane was running at near stall speed to stay with the birds and the wind currents coming of the canyon walls were unfavorable. The birds were tiring quickly and began dropping lower and lower. The canyon road was lined with trees and a mountain stream ran along one side. I could catch glimpses of the plane through the trees above me. Within seconds, four of the cranes had dropped down into the roadway and were flying directly ahead of me. In an effort to keep them flying, I honked the horn a couple of times. This worked for a few seconds but they soon exhausted and landed on the road.
Worried about what was happening in the plane and whether Kent had cleared the trees, I raced ahead to the open ridge. He flew a few feet above the ground looking for a stretch of road that wasnt strewn with rocks and boulders. About 200 yards from the summit he touched down. He was pulling the plane off the road as I drove up next to him - he had a stressed look on his face.
As we drove back to where the birds were, he described the view from his angle. With the lack of lift, he came perilously close to landing involuntarily. About two miles from the summit was a small clearing where he circled tightly to gain altitude and keep the flock together. But then, as he headed towards the top he couldnt get the lift he needed. At one point, he could see trees coming towards one wing and rock towards the other. He calculated trees to be more forgiving and actually braced to take the hit but miraculously cleared it. With full power and no more concern for the birds he was able to clear his way to the summit.
With both planes safely on the ground, we hustled back to find the birds. Ron was herding three of them up the road and two more were close behind. Kent and I found one standing next to a pond about a half mile down the road. The seventh, again 107, required us to dig out the yagi (directional antenna). I waited and slowly led the remaining six towards the planes while Kent and Ron went back to find her. She was further back but not far from the road.
It was a slow tedious process for me to lead them half way to the planes. My lips were sore from making the warbling call and slowly walking backwards while they walked six abreast several yards behind me, one slow step at a time. When Kent came, they immediately picked up the pace to be right by his side. When he ran, they all flew, six abreast, behind him.
At the summit, the wind was picking up and it was decided that we should move out before it got too windy. Ron and I pulled our vehicles just over the hill to be out of site. Kent took off uphill and into the wind. We were getting great footage but just as he flew overhead, the cranes tucked their wings into the parachute position and landed right next to us. Kents voice came across the radio, "Get out of there!". We scrambled and within seconds were down over the edge. Kent circled a couple of times and the birds soon joined him.
The drop going down the pass towards Eden is dramatic. The beautiful farming valley stretches out far below. As we descended down the narrow winding road, the plane and birds were soon far above us and almost out of sight. For Ron and I on the ground it was peaceful (but speedy) drive through the beautiful Eden and Huntsville countryside. For Kent and Errol it was high drama.
The birds usually fly in some sort of formation, either v-ing off each wing or coasting on the leading edge of the airfoil. Their normal formation was suddenly scrambled and the birds dove under the wings and close to the plane in a panic. It was last years worst nightmare - golden eagles. Last year, eagles took out two birds mid flight coming over the summit. This year eagles were waiting over the valley.
Kent looked around to see what was happening. Almost in formation with the cranes was an eagle closing in - a wolf in sheeps clothing. Kent tried an evasive maneuver that the cranes would follow but one which may slow the eagle and at the same time was on the radio to Errol. "Eagle, right on my tail - get him off me!" he yelled. Errol from high above asked, "Where is it? I cant see it." "Its right behind me!" In seconds, Errol had used his altitude to pay a surprise visit. His airspeed indicator was reading 135 mph as he dropped from above to cut across Kents tail and prevented the eagle from joining the formation.
The maneuver scared the eagle away temporarily but it was soon back on target. This time Errol had a bead on him and was back in another dive bomb pass. From the radio I heard, "I was so close I almost had to peel him off my windshield." The wing camera actually caught a quick shot of the cranes diving for the plane, the eagle coming in behind, and Errol crossing at high speed behind the plane- proof that it actually happened.
Kents intention was to land at the Morgan airport but there was another ultralite, a hang glider, and a couple of regular planes in the air. Instead, he opted for a pasture up in the foothills above Mountain Green. With the snow dusted, rugged mountains in the background and the green of the pasture, the view of planes, birds, and scenery was picturesque.
Within minutes, the diary farmers who owned the place were up to greet us. Again, not just plain old dairy farmers but dairy farmers who were pilots. They went straight for the planes and started talking about ultralights they had flown or built. While we were waiting, an ultralight from the airport below circled to land. After two aborted attempts, the pilot with passenger finally touched down - a little too hard and with not much runway left. From the far end of the field, we could see his landing gear had been bent. The passenger was unloaded and the plane returned to the airport below.
Jim and Sharon caught up to us. The road up to the pasture was too steep for the trailer so we just waited, ate fruit and some venison jerky that Kent had made, and discussed which pass going south to take. East Canyon was the one we took last year and it was a brutal ride. The one along highway 84 looked from the map not to be as high or long.
At about 5 pm, planes and birds took to the air and headed east along highway 84. Errol went on ahead and radioed back that the canyon looked very treacherous. One of the birds was lagging behind so Kent looped back and headed on past Morgan towards East Canyon. Not enough altitude or energy to make the pass tonight so he looked for a place to set down. The lagging bird set down near the golf course and once I had a position on it I found where Kent had landed.
About three miles south of Morgan on the west bench just off the highway was a smooth, close cut hayfield. Kent was standing in the field talking to the older gentleman who owned the place. A hundred yards away was his farm and we could hear the turkeys gobbling and the milking machine running. It turned out the mans name was Otis Rose and he had been one of Dads roommates when he and his friend Lynn were freshman at Weber College about 40 years ago - that was the last time they had seen each other. Incredibly small world and an incredible coincidence that we would land in his field.
Kent and I went back for the downed bird and when we returned the last rays of light were fading. Jim and others had penned the birds and secured them for the night. We tied down the planes and tarped them. We then headed to town for our first meal since breakfast.
Forecast for tomorrow is windy with a cold front coming in. Hopefully, we will be able to get to the top of Daniels Canyon by nightfall. If a storm sets in, we can settle there for a couple of days.