Day Six

October 21, 1996

Errol Spaulding - pilotRon Hill - cameraman

Errol Spaulding - pilot. ___________________________________Ron Hill - cameraman.

As we drove past Deer Creek on the way to the birds, the morning sun was halfway down the back side of Timpanogos. The fresh snow from the day before was a bathed in a brilliant pink light. The sky was clear except for a few puffy clouds around some of the mountain tops. It looked like a good day.

The planes and pens were covered with frost. We cleaned up the camp and worked to eliminate the ice on the planes after taking off the canvas covers. Due to the cold temperatures and moisture in the air, frost forms on the wings. With frost on the wings, the flow of air across the air foil is disrupted causing the plane to lose lift - in other words, you can’t get off the ground. In severe cases with humidity in the air, the condensate accumulates until lift is impossible - in other words, you fall out of the sky. Neither situation was one Kent and Errol wanted to risk.

We worked with brooms and towels to remove the ice and kept turning the planes into the sun so that it’s heat would melt the ice on all surfaces. The places where the plane was painted black (the wing tips - to look like a whooping crane) melted quickly but the white sections of the plane took much longer. The ice on Errol’s plane, which is mostly red, also melted faster.

The birds were content in their pens throughout the melting exercises. They pecked away at kernels of corn from the dried cobs that we feed them. Their water was frozen solid in the bucket. Kent had stayed in the trailer and water he had inside was frozen in the morning.

By about 9:30 a.m. we were ready to go. As Kent warmed the engine, he noticed that the throttle was sticking slightly on. We brought over one of the propane heaters and warmed the throttle mechanism and it seemed to be ok. These planes are not optimally designed for such cold conditions.

Finally ready for flight. Ron and I ran to the center of the field and set up for photography and video. As we filmed the plane and birds through takeoff, we panned past the sun drenched, snow covered mountains of Park City and Deer Valley.

The air was smooth and soon off the ground they found some lift that gave them altitude as they flew out across Jordanelle Reservoir. Six birds were in the air, five on one wing and one lone bird on the other. 107 was relegated to the trailer. If the conditions are good and the flight path is such that it would be easy to find her, Kent would let her fly until she dropped out but this morning there was a reservoir to traverse and a fairly populated area through the Heber Valley where finding a downed bird (even with radio) could be very difficult.

The destination for the morning was uncertain at takeoff. If conditions were good, they would try for the summit at Strawberry but if not they would land near the Heber airport. As they came across the valley conditions were good and altitude was high but as Kent started for the canyon, he hit a few pockets of sink. Errol from up ahead radioed back that there was lift along the west side of the canyon but after a short search for it Kent circled back to look for a landing spot at the base of the canyon. After last year’s Daniels Canyon experience, he wasn’t about to take any undue risk.

Last year we stayed overnight at the north end of Deer Creek just above the water level. Climbing out from the reservoir to the top of the canyon proved to be too much for the birds. About a mile from the summit they began dropping out of the sky and landing on the busy highway. Kent, trying to stay with the cranes, didn’t have enough power to clear the summit and ended up doing a forced landing on the highway. I was driving his truck, trying to count birds, take photos, note bird landing locations, talk on the radio, and stay as close to him as possible in case his forced landing turned into a crash landing. Fortunately it was a ‘good landing’ in Errol’s definition. "Any landing you walk away from is a good landing," says Errol.

So this year we didn’t take the chance. A small, close cut hay field right next to the highway was a great landing spot. Within minutes the trailer and chase vehicles were there and so was the farmer who took care of the place. His name was Gene Sorenson and he watched the place for his brother in Salt Lake City. Gene was married to Maxine and had some interesting questions.

"Are you OK?" was his first question. He then noticed the birds and asked, "Did they just fly in with you?" His next question caught Kent a little off guard, "What do you run in those things?" Kent didn’t know if he was referring to the motor or the type of plane. "What kind of gas?" he asked. "Oh, just regular gas." Kent said. "You mean unleaded, lead-free like cars?" "Yes." "Cool." he said only it came out more like ‘kuel’ which sounded odd coming from someone as along in years as Gene.

We loaded the birds into the trailer with 107 for an elevator ride to the top of the pass. Winds were starting to pick up so Kent and Errol took to the sky to get over the pass. Following along with the radios we couldn’t figure out why Kent could see Errol but Errol couldn’t see Kent. "Errol, you’re at 10 o’clock." "At 4 o’clock." "Errol, you’re coming right towards me!". Errol later explained that with Kent’s white plane (usually below him), it was virtually impossible to make out against the snow on the ground.

We hit the top of the pass and turned off the main road towards the Strawberry Bay Marina. Without the birds, the planes got good altitude (9500 ft) and navigating the pass was comparatively simple. Anxiety returned as they tried to find a place to land. The roads into the marina are marked with ten to twelve foot snow posts on both sides of the road. No place to land without the possibility of taking off one of the wings.

Anxiety cranked up a notch as Kent radioed that his throttle was stuck at 6000 RPM - almost full power. The higher altitude, colder temperatures, and the fact that he hadn’t moved it since the bottom of the canyon combined to freeze it solid. He announced that he was going to have to kill the engine and do a power off landing. They finally spotted a service road without snow markers and although it was short, slightly curved and surrounded by hills they both landed safely. Kent side slipped the plane with engine racing to decrease altitude and then killed the engine just before reaching the road. As the engine was cut, he hit a little sink but just at brush level settled into the flare effect and made it to the road. The flare is the cushion of air that forms between the wings and the ground just before landing.

The chase vehicles were along shortly and the birds let out of the trailer and into the pen. Winds were strong all afternoon and only settled down about an hour before dark. Because the terrain in the next leg was difficult to follow in a chase vehicle and there was such a short amount of daylight left, it was decided to wait until morning before flying again. If conditions are good, it might be possible to get well beyond Price by the end of day. From the high mountains at Strawberry there should be some good altitude for gliding as the terrain descends towards Green River. Clear and warmer weather is needed to make good time.

The bitter cold in Kent’s open cockpit plane is harsh. At Ron’s suggestion, we contacted Northern Outfitters and asked them if they wanted to donate some warm boots, hats and gloves to the project (which will be shown on CBS in January) but they have a new policy in place. "Interesting project," they said, "But we don’t do promo stuff anymore."

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