WASHINGTON (AP) - The pilots of the bird-like aircraft that has been leading nine young whooping cranes to their winter home in Florida have been granted a special exemption by federal regulators to continue their journey.
The Federal Aviation Administration has provided a one-time waiver to Operation Migration, a conservation organization trying to re-establish an Eastern flyway for whooping cranes by teaching young birds how to make the flight.
Operation Migration ran into trouble with the FAA because it pays salaries to pilots. FAA regulations say sport planes - a category that sometimes includes aircraft of exotic design - can only be flown for personal use.
"Because the operation is in "mid-migration,' the FAA is granting a one-time exemption so the migration can be completed," the agency said in a statement. "The FAA will work with Operation Migration to develop a more comprehensive, long-term solution."
FAA officials notified the conservation group's pilots in late November that the agency had opened an investigation. Just before Christmas, Operation Migration voluntarily grounded the plane and the birds in northwestern Alabama - more than half way to their destination.
Joe Duff, an Operation Migration co-founder and one of the organization's pilots, said more than 1,400 people have signed an online petition asking the flight be allowed to continue.
"We're very pleased. This is probably a record for turning around a waiver," Duff said.
He said he has sympathy for FAA officials, who don't want to "open the floodgates" to potentially risky uses of ultralight aircraft.
"There are all kinds of things people would like to do in sports aircraft that they aren't designed to do," Duff said.
Operation Migration is part of a U.S.-Canadian partnership of government and private organizations trying to re-establish migrating flocks of whooping cranes. The cranes nearly became extinct, dwindling to only 15 birds in 1941. One flyway has already been re-established, but that flock of more than 100 birds is vulnerable to extinction should a disaster strike, Duff said.
Another Eastern flyway disappeared in the late 1800s when the last whooping cranes flying that route died off, he said. Since there were no birds still flying the route, conservationists have been showing young cranes how to make the journey.
There were 10 cranes when the flock left Wisconsin this fall. But one young bird took a detour and was later found hanging out with a flock of migrating sandhill cranes. That youngster has already arrived in Florida.