For the birds
Asotin flight instructor learns new tricks flying with geese
Hannelore Sudermann – Staff writer
Before he flew with the birds, Scott Johnson thought he knew everything about the sky. A longtime hang gliding aficionado, the Asotin-based flight instructor had flown just about every parasail, trike, plane and glider in every kind of setting.
But a call came last year that changed his sense of sky.
A French film team asked him to fly an ultralight for them as they trained and filmed Canada and snow geese.
The company, Paris-based Galatee Films, had seen the movie “Fly Away Home” and decided to produce its own piece on migratory birds around the world. The company, led by producer Jacques Perrin, was a leader in films starring nature. The company produced the award-winning insect movie “Microcosmos” in 1996.
Johnson jumped a the chance. Owner of U.S. Airborne, a flight instruction and equipment company, he had recently ended a full season of training students to fly and demonstrating and selling equipment. In previous years, he had flown for film crews including ESPN 2 and the USA Network. With winter coming, he and his wife Terri were ready for a new adventure.
In January, the project landed them in Monument Valley, Utah, and southern Arizona where Johnson would pilot an ultralight used for training and filming the birds.
Johnson said he would often start on a highway that crossed the desert floor. As he rolled down the road — which had been blocked off by the local police — the geese would trot behind him. When he lifted off, they would follow, their heads bobbing and wings flapping as they struggled to break the bonds of gravity. Once in the sky, they would settle into two long elegant strings behind him.
“Total peace would set in whenever I had the birds with me flying,” he said.
Since birth, the birds had been trained to follow the French trainer now seated in the ultralight behind Johnson.
Thousands of feet in the air, the geese would surround them, their wings grazing the glider, their tailfeathers sometimes touching Johnson’s feet.
“They were like a part of me and they moved right with me,” said Johnson. “It really opened up my eyes to how smart these birds are.”
He even had his favorite — a small Canada goose named Nevada.
“All the bigger birds would pick on him and pick at his little feathers,” he said. Despite Johnson’s efforts on the ground to swat the other birds away from his little friend, Nevada always sustained a few bald spots.
But when they took off, Nevada’s underdog roll stayed on the ground. “When it came time to fly, he was the lead goose,” said Johnson.
“He was just the coolest bird. He was smaller than the rest, but he had the biggest heart.”
During his weeks leading the flocks in Arizona and Utah, Johnson found himself thinking more and more like a bird.
“You could kind of understand them without talking to them,” he said. “When I wanted to turn, they could feel it and turn right with me.”
On occasion, he also felt like a mother bird, especially when his six to seven-month old charges would stray from the group during training runs. Working with another ultralight, Johnson would peal away from flock and hunt for lost geese.
“It would always happen. Two or three would be going in the other direction,” he said. “I would swoop down next to them and take them all back to the road where we started.”
Sometimes something as simple as a house would attract the geese. They would forget the flock and land where dogs could get at them. More than once, Johnson had to swoop down and capture the birds’ attention before an eager group of dogs had them for lunch.
Not all his rescues were that simple, though.
One day, it got too windy to fly and Johnson’s flock broke up, all heading for the ground and landing in different places. Johnson guided the few that had stuck with him back to the landing spot and then to the surprise of the film crew, took off on foot to help find the lost ones.
“We spent the afternoon hiking off into the desert and honking these little horns and hollering in French to them,” he said.
“I didn’t want any birds to get lost on my watch,” he said. “None did.”
First a flyer and then a teacher, the idea of using the ultralight to help train the flocks appealed to Johnson on several levels.
Not only was he learning to see the sky through the birds’ eyes, but with the trainer honking a horn and shaking a bag of grain in the seat behind him, he was teaching the geese to be be part of a flock.
All the geese had been hatched under human watch and encouraged to imprint on the French trainer in a yellow vest. During the shoot, they were taken from location to location in a U-Haul packed with straw. Little water-filled wading pools awaited their return from filming and training each afternoon.
Johnson delighted in all of this.
“After I would land they would all circle around my ultralight and peck on it,” he said. “We would feed them grain and water and then take them home for the night.”
Johnson had the chance to take a few of them home permanently, but he thought they might be happier at the Arizona sanctuary where the Canada geese, including Nevada, retired. The snow geese, however returned with the film crew to France.
Several hundred photographs, memories and a new perspective are the only souvenirs Johnson kept from his adventure.
“It changed my outlook totally on geese,” he said. “Everyone around here thinks they’re a pest. But now I’m like the goose protector.”
Though Johnson keeps busy giving lessons at his family’s farm near Asotin and travelling around the country to sell ultralights, hang gliders, and trikes, he looks forward to the next project that will have him up in the air with the birds.
“I just loved being around them,” he said. “I’d do it again in a second.”
“The Winged Migration,” which shows the geese in the United States as well as other migratory birds in Europe, Iceland and Africa, is due out in Europe by December.