Regulatory question halts Operation Migration journey in Alabama
January 5, 2012 - Operation Migration’s 2011-12 whooping crane migration – an annual light-sport aircraft -led flight of the endangered birds from Wisconsin to Florida - is currently on hold in northern Alabama while the FAA sorts out an administrative issue involving the pilots and aircraft. According to Joe Duff, OM CEO and pilot, the FAA is working with them to resolve whether or not OM’s pilots are flying their certificated, N-numbered weight-shift trikes outside the sport pilot/light-sport aircraft regulations. The organization has played a leading role in the reintroduction of endangered whooping cranes into eastern North America, teaching them the migratory route to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida since 2001.
Since OM’s aircraft are experimental light-sport aircraft (E-LSA) and the pilots are sport pilots, they are subject to the sport pilot/LSA regulations. One provision prohibits a sport pilot from flying for hire or as part of business activities.
According to David Sakrison, a member of the OM board of directors, the FAA has begun the process of evaluating a waiver request from OM that will exempt its pilots and aircraft from that rule, even though OM has always maintained that its pilots are hired for a wide range of non-flying skills and duties and that they volunteer their flying time. In fact, in 2010 the FAA Flight Safety District Office (FSDO) in Milwaukee investigated the status of OM’s flight operations and accepted OM’s explanation, Sakrison explained. “We were told by the FSDO director that no further action would be taken. Based on that ruling, we began the 2011 season.”
The birds are currently in pens in Franklin County, Alabama, being taken care of by OM staff and interns.
The aircraft passed inspection by the FAA in August 2011. In November, however, OM pilots received a Letter of Investigation and, after discussions with the FAA in December, they voluntarily ceased any flying while the matter is resolved. A petition for exemption based on OM’s spotless past safety record and the public good has been submitted, and it is currently under review by the FAA in Washington, D.C.
“We hoped that (approval) would happen during the Christmas break, but it is taking longer than anticipated,” Sakrison wrote in OM’s In the Field blog. “The FAA is in support of this project and is working hard to resolve the matter in our favor. We appreciate their efforts.”
A contingency plan is being developed with OM’s Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) colleagues in case the exemption request is not approved and the migration is forced to complete the journey without aircraft. The cranes are about 500 miles away from their Florida destination.
Operation Migration supporters are invited to post comments to OM’s guestbook, which will be forwarded to officials at the FAA.