When you see Winged Migration, keep an eye out for the segments filmed in the red rock wilderness of Monument Valley, Utah. With enormous jutting stone formations, deep channels and turbulent air conditions, Monument Valley doesn't seem particularly bird-friendly, much less human-in-a-small-aircraft friendly. Still that doesn't stop thousands of migrating birds annually, nor does it scare off one intrepid pilot from southeastern Washington state.
"I'd never flown with birds before -- I mean, not like this. I've flown near hawks and eagles in free flight, but I'd never experienced anything like this. I was flying right in the middle of these geese," explains Scott Johnson, owner (with his wife, Terri) of U.S. Airborne Sport Aviation Center in Asotin, Wash. Johnson got involved with the project when a friend told him about a French film crew that needed an experienced ultralight aircraft pilot. Johnson flew down to Lake Mead, showed the Winged Migration team what he could do, and was hired on the spot.
Then it was time to meet his avian stars.
"We'd be waiting on the highway, which was blocked off for filming, and we had these little bicycle horns -- you know honk honk. The trainers would holler in French, the equivalent of "come on," and I'd feather down the highway with the geese running right behind us. And then we'd take off and you'd look around and they were right there, flying all around us."
Although Johnson initially needed the presence of the French trainer (who had worked with the birds from the moment of their hatching) and a grain bag to get the geese's cooperation, by the time filming ended, he was practically one of their own.
"It got to where they would be surfing my leading edges, just like a wave. They didn't have to flap or anything, just ride the air currents. Sometimes I'd have five or six of them right next to me surfing, and I'd do a turn, and their wing feathers were so close to my leading edge they'd just turn right along with me."
In addition to the three weeks in Monument Valley, Johnson also participated in the subsequent Winged Migration shoot on the Mexican border. He's done a lot of work for Red Bull, ESPN, National Geographic and more. In addition to developing and orchestrating never-before-seen ultralight stunts for film, he teaches flying and enjoys the Snake River canyon scenery not far from his home. It's no surprise that his passion for flying translated into a deep curiosity and willingness to help out on every aspect of the Winged Migration shoot -- from guard-dogging the site and rounding up stray geese to flying out every morning to check out the wind conditions.
"It could get pretty dangerous in there around those huge monuments," he says. "Pretty turbulent. I'd roll in from nice, smooth, desert flying conditions and just drop into some really nasty air. Sometimes the birds would be with me, and they'd be like, 'Hey, we're out of here,' and they'd be gone. It was all I could do to keep control of the aircraft and get me and the trainer out of there safely."
Winged Migration was nominated for a 2002 best documentary Academy Award ("It was a thrill to be nominated, even if we did lose out to our buddy Michael Moore," Johnson says) and has been slowly making its way across the United States. Johnson hasn't flown with birds since, but would relish the opportunity.
"I have thought about raising and training some geese of my own to fly with. It would be a great tourist attraction thing to be able to offer, the chance to fly with geese," he says with a laugh. "I wish I were flying with them right now."