Friday, October 17
The forecast last night looked great for as far out as we could see. Most weather channels had little suns all across the week. As we drove from Moab out to the airport, the near full moon was setting in the west and the rising sun in the east ignited the fire red rocks. The weather was warm and for a change there was no frost or wing covers to remove. Takeoff went smoothly.
The morning challenge was to gain 1700 feet in altitude in order to clear the ridge just outside of Monticello. With over thirty miles before reaching it, they were able to clear rim easily. Errol was busy for a while on eagle patrol. A massive red wall of rock runs for miles past Moab and on the top were several eagles. With Errol's offensive measures and having good altitude there were no close calls.
The morning scenery was spectacular both from the plane and on the road. Kent described the view of the morning sun on the wildly varying rock formations. From the road the contrast of green vegetation and red and white rocks was beautiful.
We passed the Canyonlands turnoff and then lost sight of the planes as they cut southeast towards Dove Creek, Colorado. Several miles from the Colorado state border we picked them up again. Kent was flying low and keeping one eye on places to land and another on his fuel levels. They had been in the air more than two hours. He kept saying he had fifteen minutes of fuel and was skimming the tree tops looking for a good place to land. They eventually pushed on to Dove Creek and landed in a hayfield just south of town.
Nearby was a beautiful little pond with clear water. He lead the cranes over through the rushes to the waterline. They were in heaven. Three of the sandhills set out to explore. The waded in up to their feathers and scouted the entire perimeter of the pond. The whoopers and remaining sandhills poked through the water, occasionally sticking their heads underneath. As the explorers returned, all the cranes started in bathing themselves by partially submerging their bodies, flipping water with their wings and preening themselves.
As we landed, several young boys were working nearby on a haystack. They eventually came over to see the cranes and ask questions about the airplane. A couple stopped and visited with Errol about ultralights. They were the town EMTs and he was working on the tractor when he saw the plane go down and wanted to make sure everything was ok. The afternoon was spent visiting with people that stopped by, organizing the equipment and changing batteries.
The evening flight wasn't quite as successful. At about 5 p.m., the entourage climbed into the sky, circled, and headed for Cortez. Between Dove Creek and Cortez is a fairly rugged canyon with rock cliffs and lots of cedars. It must be good habitat for eagles because not more than five minutes into the flight I heard the adrenalin charged call, "Errol --- I got an eagle on my tail!" From the ground all I got was lots of static and occasional snippets of an excited conversation, 'out of formation! I can't see the whoopers!.... behind me!!' In the distance I could see Errol turning and banking above the horizon and Kent was bobbing up and down not high above the ground.
They landed in a hay field not far from the road and we got the full story. After takeoff, the birds had been very unsettled and wouldn't fall into formation around the plane. Then from high above, the dark bullet of a golden eagle with wings tucked tightly against its side fell from the sky. Errol estimated it started its descent from around 10,000 feet. Peeling off one of the sandhills it missed a direct hit and circled back for another attack. Kent locked on and flew directly at it sending the eagle right over the upper wing of the center of his plane. One sandhill was still hanging with him and as he looked back, the determined eagle (unphased by the pursuit) had made a 180 and was bearing down on the crane. Errol peeled off the eagle in a three G turn just in the nick of time. The eagle still wouldn't give up and as it pumped its way back to the flock Errol cut it off again. He said he tried to plant it right on his skylight so he could see what it felt like. That was enough for the eagle and it retreated into the cedars below.
The birds were wildly out of formation. When they sense danger, they all flock in a mad scramble to get near the plane. Wings and feathers are everywhere as they crowd the front of the plane and the cockpit. In the scramble for position, one whooper maneuvered too close and hung itself up on the plane's ballistic chute canister. Kent cut the throttle and nosed downward to keep the crane from going through the prop. Fortunately there was no injury.
Another eagle appeared. This time Errol was ready with the shotgun and scared him off before he got too near the birds. By now, the cranes were very upset and continued to crowd the plane. Kent had to set down to keep them from getting tangled in one of the many cables holding the plane together or caught in the propeller. They landed on a hill near the highway and waited to see if the cranes would settle down. Their eyes were wild and they were panting as they walked around the planes.
With the nearing sunset, it was decided to hold here for the night. Not far away is a ridge that will be a good jumping off point that should get us well down past Shiprock, New Mexico. Even with the short afternoon, it was still a good day. The morning segment was 82 miles and we added another 10 in the afternoon for a daily total of 90 miles.
The sunset is spectacular. From the hill here you can see in all directions. It's mostly flat but to the south the Ute mountains west of Cortez are a collection of purple mounds against a pale blue sky. The only clouds are to the west and are thin layers of wispy white. As the sun slowly sinks down through them, the clouds light up in golden fire that spreads outwards along the black horizon. Now, the gold gradually collects itself and sinks into the darkness leaving orange embers against a turquoise blue.
Time to go find a phone line to upload.
Wild eyed after eagle attack...
Takeoff from Dove Creek, CO.