Ten young whooping cranes and the bird-like plane they think is their
mother had flown more than halfway to their winter home in Florida when federal regulators stepped in. Now the birds and the plane are grounded in Alabama while the Federal Aviation Administration investigates whether the journey violates regulations because the pilot was being paid by a conservation group to lead the
cranes on their first migration instead of working for free.
hire. The pilots of Operation
Migration's plane are instead licensed to fly sport
aircraft because that's the category of aircraft that the group's small, open
plane with its rear propeller and bird-like wings falls under. FAA regulations
also prohibit sport aircraft "which are sometimes of exotic design" from being
flown to benefit a business or charity.
The rules are aimed, in part, at preventing businesses or charities from
taking passengers for joyrides in sometimes risky planes. "That's a valid rule.
They shouldn't be hired to do that. But it wasn't written, I believe, to stop a
wildlife reintroduction," Joe Duff, an Operation Migration co-founder and one of
its pilots, said. The conservation group has agreed voluntarily to stop flying
and has applied to FAA for a waiver. "We're considering that waiver," FAA
spokesman Lynn Lunsford said. He said he didn't know when a decision would be
made or whether it would be made before spring, when the birds would return to