Thursday, October 16
The drama meter was pegged today. Just when you think things are working into a rhythym and you have a handle on it, something rocks reality.
This morning started out with a drive from warm beds and hot showers in Provo to a lonely road north of Price where the ice was slowly melting off the planes. The cranes had slept well (standing on one leg) even through there had been coyotes howling in the distance.
The cranes are getting used to Errol - maybe even a little attached. This morning as he took off, three sandhills jumped the pen gates and flew after him. Kent was close behind and circled over the sagebrush to pick up the rest of the flock. For some reason, the whoopers seemed to be holding their own party. The gang of four hung behind and wouldn't fall into formation. Kent circled several times and then started towards Price. The whoopers hung back but were flying in the right direction so he carved out a few S-turns over the little valley leading towards the rugged canyon.
As I followed along, the whoopers were flapping straight down the road at about windshield level. One female, who has shown a mind of her own at times, begin to drop back and then landed on the road. It was critical that she keep with the rest of the group and that they all stay together. With a mud caked, diesel belching, horn blaring Suburban roaring towards her, she decided to take to the air again. She gradually pumped her way to join the other three that were meandering above the green grass and stream in a small draw. A herd of cows, startled at the birds and plane, were running underneath them.
It was a unique sight and I pulled over to video color contrasts and the moving cranes and cattle. I was just zooming in on the birds when a dark shadow shot down from behind and hit the lagging white whooper. "Eagle attack!" Kent yelled over the radio. I didn't know whether to film or run. I honked the horn to scare off the eagle and it flew to some nearby rocks and landed. Jim was right behind me and he ran to the fence, climbed over and ran to bewildered crane that was standing in the center of the meadow. At least she was still standing.
We could see blood dripping from the feathers on her leg. When an eagle attacks, they usually hit their prey once with razor sharp talons directly to the rib cage. The attack takes out the heart or lungs and the bird drops. We had no way of knowing the extent of the injuries and could only see blood around the leg feathers. As we wrapped and taped the leg tightly to stop the bleeding, she was in the most pain around the upper leg. Scott wasn't far behind so he and Jim loaded her in the trailer and set out to find a veternarian in Price.
I raced ahead to find the planes. Kent didn't have a lot of altitude and actually circled once inside the big canyon to get altitude. Fortunately it was a descending canyon and by the time they passed over Price they were very high. Just outside of Price, I got radio and visual contact and we settled in for the long straight haul to Green River. The remaining birds were pumping good and since the attack they had been in tight formation around the plane.
Frank peeled off just outside of Price and headed back to college. I wish he could go on with us.
The distance goal had been the Green River airport - a very out of the way but nice facility. As the convoy got closer to Green River, Kent had plenty of altitude and fuel and the birds were comfortably cruising so he pushed on for Moab. On this leg of the trip we had our second scare of the day.
Errol landed for a few minutes at Green River and then rejoined Kent and the cranes flying down the draw towards Moab. There were no roads underneath them so I raced east to the intersection and then headed south. As I neared the Moab airport, the planes were obscured from view and radio transmission wasn't great. I could hear Kent calling for Errol to help as eagles were attacking again. Several times he called and got no response. Occasionally I can reach Errol when Kent can't but I had no luck.
Kent radioed he had hit some headwind and was running dangerously low on fuel. Last year I had flown this segment doing some filming and knew it was a very rugged stretch with lots of canyons and rocks. The tension started to mount as Kent said over and over that fuel was running low. Suddenly ahead of me there was a roadblock for construction and the cars were lined up for half a mile at a dead stop. No side roads, extra lanes, or even a shoulder to drive on.
Finally I saw Kent and the cranes come over a low ridge and head straight for the closest section of runway (which happened to be abandoned). There were down and safe but no sign of Errol. I finally pulled into the airport and tried to work my way out to the where they were parked without driving across active runways. Kent was frantic. Errol had been right beside him and his last radio transmission was that he would stick close till he landed because of the low fuel situation. Tom was right behind me in the fuel truck so we grabbed a half filled can and drained 15 minutes of fuel into his empty tank. 'Hold the cranes here while I go back and look for Errol,' he said.
He jumped into the plane, threw on full throttle, and was off the ground scanning to the west. Coming from the east was a twin engine on approach. While he was out of immediate danger I don't think he saw the twin. I tried to hold the birds by calling to them and herding them in the opposite direction. The sandhills kept craning around me and had soon bolted past and were in the air behind him. The whoopers held for a short time but then followed suite. I radioed that he had the whole flock behind him.
"I gotta land and bring them back - get the pens up!" he yelled. Within seconds, Tom and I had the pens up. Running through my mind were all of the scenarios that could have happened to Errol. Tom threw dried ears of corn into the pen and we soon had all the birds secure. Just as we were wiring up the the last gate and Kent was headed for the runway, Errol's plane appeared over the ridge. What a welcome sight!
He circled, landed and climbed out a little shaken. Apparently while in a sharp turn pursuing one of the eagles, his engine had quit. He was only a couple of hundred feet off the ground and barely had time to level out, try the starter once, and then land. Fortunately, there was a flat spot with brush only a few inches high and he was able to stop just short of a deep gully.
The Rans has two fuel tanks in the wings with a line running between them to level the fuel. Vents on the outside keep the pressure even so the tanks stay equally full. One of the vent lines had been bent removing the wing covers and in a sharp turn with low fuel one of the tanks had gone dry. It was enough to kill the engine.
Once on the ground, Errol tried again to start the engine and it popped right off. He determined the problem, checked the fuel level in both tanks, and was soon back in the air so we wouldn't worry. Having an engine go out can be terrifying at any altitude. Recovery at less than 200 feet above ground is a miracle.
No sooner had Errol landed when a uniformed fellow came briskly strolling towards us from the terminal area. We had been unable to identify ourselves and our mission over the local radio frequency but once on the ground heard them talking about 'the guys in the ultralights on the dirt strip'. With the closeness of the twin landing and the absence of radio protocol, we thought we were in big trouble.
As it turned out, he was the pilot of the twin and was with the BLM. The pilot talk network had filtered to him that we had taken off from a farmers field in Morgan yesterday and were in the area. He was just excited to see it in real life.
With the drama so far and the lay of the terrain ahead, Moab was a good place to call it a day. In one flight we had travelled over 90 miles and had been 2 hours 40 minutes in the air.
Whooper and sandhill trying to get keys out of plane - that's enough for one day.
Sandhill over wing over Green River, Utah.