For the Birds Radio Program: Flying

Original Air Date: Sept. 19, 2001

Laura slipped the surly bonds of earth on an ultralight aircraft.

Duration: 4′33″


At the end of the saddest week I have ever imagined facing in my life, I found myself floating above trees and wetland, looking down upon hawks from an ultralight aircraft. This particular plane is going to be used in Operation Migration–the project to teach a flock of Whooping Cranes to migrate between the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin down to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, with the ultimate goal of establishing a healthy breeding population of Whooping Cranes in Wisconsin. The pilot who took me out was Joe Duff, who will be the lead pilot next month when these largest birds of North America set out on their historic journey.

I had gone to Necedah following the International Crane Foundation’s annual meeting, to interview Joe Duff. We talked a while about the project, and suddenly Joe asked if I wanted to go up in the ultralight. It was such an unexpected offer, given matter-of-factly, as if he didn’t realize that this routine daily activity of his was for me a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was early enough to be pretty cold up there, but Joe handed me a nice thick jacket that certainly made me warmer than those birds that fly naked as a jaybird. But I was so excited that I don’t think I would have noticed cold even without the jacket.

The commercial passenger planes that I’ve been in take off at such high speed that we race through sights faster than our eyes can process, much less savor. The ultralight takes off at bird speed, and once aloft, cruises at 35-40 miles per hour, the right speed for flight. From the height we were flying, a Red-tailed Hawk could have spotted a mouse on the ground. No way could I have done that with my eyes watering behind my bifocals, but I could see several Red-tailed Hawks perched in trees. Up at this height, the horizon is farther away–it seems to reveal the curvature of the earth, and shows how blended our backyards and towns and farms are. Political boundaries are mere abstractions with no meaning to eagles and cranes, though they do notice highways and take advantage of thermal air currents that develop over the pavement. This however was too early in the morning for thermal development, so we didn’t come eye to eye with any birds.

I could have stayed up there for hours and hours, but eventually it was time to return to this sad little planet. As the smoke finally settles in New York, eventually we’ll be able to look up at the skies with joy again, and remember how exhilarating an experience flying should be. The whole experience made me search out a poem I had to memorize back in seventh grade, one that Ronald Reagan quoted from during another sad time in America: High Flight, a poem written by John Gillespie Magee, who served in the Royal Air Force and died December 11, 1941, at the age of 19.

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds–and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of–wheeled and soared and swing
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eater craft through footless halls of air… Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew– And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.