Operation Migration Grounded Over Paid Pilots

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The ultralight aircraft-led annual pilgrimage of whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida has voluntarily suspended operations after a pilot raised concerns that the flights may run afoul of federal regulations. The problem is that ultralight pilots are not allowed to be compensated for their work and Operation Migration pilots, who fly ultralights, are compensated for theirs. The group's annual efforts use an ultralight aircraft to guide locally bred whooping cranes across the country to the birds' traditional winter migration destination. Once there, the birds mix with more experienced birds that guide the return. An attorney for the group -- which has operated for more than a decade -- says its pilots don't want to knowingly violate FAA regulations and are seeking a resolution.

What Operation Migration would like is for the FAA to formally exempt the group from rules banning payment of the pilots. An attorney for the pilots has asked aviation officials to allow compensated ultralight flights, saying that the group's goal is to protect an endangered species. A spokesperson for the FAA has said the agency's understanding is that the pilots are reluctant to fly in violation of the law. Nine birds and their handlers have stopped this year's journey in Alabama while they await a formal verdict from the FAA. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reportedly considering holding the birds at local refugees if the flights are not allowed to continue. Aside from the physical care of whooping cranes, Operation Migration participates in school programs, sharing its experiences with students, some of whom follow the cranes' journey online.