From: Ian Simpson, Reuters, WASHINGTON
Published January 10, 2012 06:59 AM

Operation Migration is ON! Whooping Cranes WILL migrate!

A flock of rare whooping cranes has been given the go-ahead to complete its inaugural winter migration after a U.S. agency lifted restrictions on the pilots, who will guide them wearing bird costumes.


The whooping cranes, part of North America's tallest flying bird species, have been in pens since last month while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigated whether the 1,285-mile flight violates regulations.

The FAA said on Monday it would grant a "one-time exemption" to the pilots flying ultralight aircraft leading the whooping cranes, who were stalled in Alabama on their journey from Wisconsin to two Florida refuges.

The issue arose because the pilots are being paid by the conservation group Operation Migration, violating FAA regulations that a pilot must hold a commercial rating to fly for hire. The Operation Migration pilots are licensed to fly lightweight sport aircraft.

"The FAA has granted an exemption to Operation Migration that will allow pilots to continue to aid the whooping crane migration," the agency said in a statement.

"Normally, the FAA limits light sport aircraft and pilots to personal flights without compensation. Because the operation is in 'mid-migration,' the FAA is granting a one-time exemption so the migration can be completed," it said.

Operation Migration could not immediately be reached for comment, but a message on its Facebook page read: "YAHOO! Thank you to EVERYONE for your support! You signed petitions and posted comments and the FAA listened. We are thrilled beyond belief!"

Operation Migration is part of a public-private U.S.-Canadian partnership aimed at re-establishing migrating flocks of whooping cranes. The birds were nearly wiped out, falling to only 15 in 1941, David Sakrison, an Operation Migration director, said in an earlier interview.

The FAA said it would work with Operation Migration to develop a long-term solution.

FAA rules forbid sport aircraft from being flown to benefit a charity or business, a regulation aimed at barring the charities or businesses from giving rides in the light craft.

Photo shows a flock of whooping cranes being guided by an ultra-light operated by an Operation Migration pilot as they make their way across Kentucky, on their way from Wisconsin to Florida, in this handout picture taken in 2008 and released to Reuters January 7, 2012. A flock of rare whooping cranes on its inaugural winter migration to Florida are grounded in Alabama while a U.S. government agency decides whether a plane guiding them will be allowed to proceed. Credit: Reuters/Joseph Duff/Operation Migration/Handout

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