Lost Lambs–Chapter 3

35 miles per hour…

40 miles per hour…

45 miles per hour…

50 miles per hour…

55 miles per hour. Tessie will fly now, if I let her.

60 miles per hour. I hold her on the runway for a bit longer.

65 miles per hour. I ease the yoke back and she slides off the runway so smoothly that for a few seconds, even I’m not sure if we’re still barreling down the centerline of the blacktop or sailing through the air.

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Then her nose angles upwards and she’s in her element. I hold her at 70 miles an hour, her best rate of climb, and the earth falls away below us. I start a mild banking turn to the right. How ya’ doing, Adrian? I ask, my own voice echoing inside my headset. This is his First Flight in a small plane.

“I think I’m going to have to take flying lessons,” he says and smiles ear to ear.

Roger that.

He’s holding the critter-tracking antenna out his window, hugging it close to the plane’s side, and reports no problems keeping it in place–but I can tell that we are paying a drag penalty. Tess is a bit sluggish, and she’s climbing more slowly than usual.

In a long, lazy 360-degree turn back the way we came, park a wing off of Highway 84 just outside the airport, and fly South along the roadway. Lisa’s brilliant idea is that we should try to search for a transmitter at a known location before we go off into the wild and try to locate one on a moving and missing turtle. It’s such an obviously scientific approach that none of the rest of us even thought of it.

Of course she is a real scientist, after all.

So today, about 15 miles on down the road, Rio, Lisa, and Jennie (Adrian’s sweetie and another field biologist whom he met while trapping Green Anacondas in South America) are waiting for us. They have two transmitters of the same kind that are on the two missing turtles, and our mission today is to learn about how far away we can “hear” the signals, what antenna angle and placement works best, and how precisely we need to be lined up with the transmitter to get that signal.

Turtle Air to Turtle Ground, I call out on the open-use air-to-ground frequency of 122.850 megahertz, We’re airborne and en route to your location. Over.

“Turtle Ground to Turtle Air,” comes back a very masculine voice over my headset. I’m shocked for a moment, before I realize that my little boy ain’t so little any more. “We read you loud and clear, over.”

Normally I might plug my iPod into the hidden port on Tessie’s panel and play our flight mix: The Theme from the Aviators, Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron, Ride of the Valkyries, Leaving on a Jet Plane, and more. But today, we need to listen for the pings of the transmitters and chat with our ground crew.

The bummer is that the smaller turtle, Leigh, is wearing a small transmitter that we can’t pick up until we are right on top of it. I can see Rio and the gang on the ground, waving their hands above their heads in greeting before we can hear the stupid transmitter.

We do a number of fly-bys, trying out different altitudes and angles. It will be a miracle if we find the small turtle. Once again, I’m grateful that Adrian chose a critter that lives in the water rather than one that roams the land. So long as I keep Tess’s nose pointed at the meandering river, I think we’ve got a chance.

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After about 45 minutes of tests, Adrian unplugs his headset from the tracking radio and plugs it into Tessie’s panel. “OK,” he says, “I’m going to try the larger transmitter now.” I’m feeling a bit gloomy about our prospects, but tell him I’ll fly south for a few miles, do a 180-degree turn and head back to the ground crew. To catch the smaller transmitter we needed to be within a few hundred yards. I’m assuming we might be able to hear the large one at a mile out.

I turn the plane using a shallow bank angle. It takes longer, but just being in a small plane for the first time is excitement enough for most people. Only a jackass does wild maneuvers with a First Flyer aboard. As we roll out on course, Adrian gives me a thumbs up. He has the signal already, and we’re a good five miles out.

I key the mike button on the yoke with my left thumb. Turtle Air to Turtle Ground, we have the signal from the large transmitter.

Rio forgets his radio protocol: “You frickin’ kidding, right? We can’t even hear your engine yet. Where the heck are you?”

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When the Tale Continues: Weather Woes delay the search.

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