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Ultralights Are for the Birds

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Operation Migration ultralight flying with whooping cranes.

´╗┐Add wildlife conservation to the growing list of special jobs that only ultralight aircraft can do. Right now, a volunteer group called Operation Migration is using Cosmos Phase II ultralights to lead a flock of endangered whooping cranes on the first migration of their young lives, from Wisconsin to Florida. The excellent control and performance of the ultralight at speeds much slower than more conventional aircraft makes this possible. After months of intensive training, the Operation Migration staff have trained the birds to follow the ultralight as though it were another crane. The birds were born in captivity to bolster the wild population which has fallen alarmingly in recent years.

For LIVE video of the migration, check CraneCam each day from 6:30am to 10:00am and then in the afternoon from 3:30pm to 4:30pm just before sunset. TrikeCam is also available LIVE whenever the migration is airborne. These majestic birds are large and slow, and the distance they can cover in a day, or whether they fly at all, very much depends on good weather.

Cosmos Phase II ultralight, used by Operation Migration and featured in the film "Fly Away Home", on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

To find out more, please visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The Ultralight Exhibit Station on the southwest side of the aircraft hanger, explains with words, photographs, and artifacts, how ultralights evolved from hang gliders, and what research led Operation Migration to develop the complex ultralight migration protocols, with help from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, U. S. G. S. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and other wildlife conservation groups. The exhibit shows the special techniques and hardware developed by Operation Migration to train the birds. Displayed nearby is a Cosmos Phase II ultralight aircraft that led birds in past migrations, and appeared in the Hollywood film, Fly Away Home starring Anna Paquin.

Russell Lee is a curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Aeronautics Division.

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