|Paul Gazis is a California hang glider pilot. The following stories appeared on the Internet hang gliding mailing list (email@example.com). Reprinted with permission of the author.|
All this talk of hawks attacking gliders -- I've seen
quite a few instances of this myself -- reminds me of some
encounters I had at Dunlap, California.
Sometimes The Hang Glider Wins
For those of you who have not seen it (and also those of you who have), Dunlap, California, is a thermal soaring site in the Eastern Sierra, 40 miles northeast of Fresno. It's a reliable site, soarable the year round, with a launch and landing that are challenging, but not too horribly bad. It's a good place for Novice pilots to gain altitude experience, Intermediate pilots to develop thermaling skills, and more ambitious pilots to start going XC. The best time of year is in the spring -- April through June -- when the valleys are warm, the upper air is cold, and the thermals are big, smooth, fat, and tall.
Dunlap is a very pretty site. Like most ridges in the Eastern Sierra, it gets sufficient rainfall in the spring that the slopes are green, the meadows are filled with flowers, and the mountains to the west are covered with snow. Spring also brings clouds of harmless insects: mayflies, dragonflies, moths and the like. These insects are food for flocks of swifts, that climb, bank, turn, and dive with superlative skill in pursuit of their diminutive prey.
It is with one of these swifts that my tale is concerned. The year was 1988, the month was May, and I was cruising high over launch in my beloved old Eclipse-17. (Yes, this happened long ago, when men were men, birds were birds, and inexperienced pilots learned to fly on gliders with neutral roll stability). A flash of movement caught my eye. I looked up, and saw a swift headed straight towards me.
The swift was traveling at full speed, like a miniature combat aircraft, in lethal pursuit of some hapless bug. It was also on a collision course with my left wingtip -- a fact of which it appeared to be completely unaware. There was no time for me to react; all I could do was watch with horrified fascination.
At the last moment, just as collision seemed inevitable, the swift appeared to realize that something was terribly wrong. It rolled level, pulled up hard, and cleared my wingtip by inches...
...then it hit my wingtip vortex.
The results were impressive. The poor creature got clobbered -- rolled more times than you can imagine in much less time than you would believe possible. It finally recovered and flew away, a dizzier and one hopes a wiser bird.
Sometimes It's a Draw
Two years later, I was at Dunlap again, flying my beloved old Sport 150E -- proof that I did at one time possess a certain amount of taste. I was at 7200' MSL over Delilah Lookout when I spotted a red-tailed hawk below and ahead of me.
We were in the same thermal and the hawk did not seem to mind my presence, so I decided to follow it. It climbed faster than me, and soon we were at the same altitude -- the hawk soaring effortlessly, me 40 feet behind straining to keep up.
Then the bird got hammered. An unheralded but vicious bit of turbulence flipped it right over on its back. I, a mere second behind, was precisely too close to do anything other than hang onto the control and think: "I have changed my mind! I do not want to be here! I want to be somewhere else!"
While I do not have a particularly clear memory of the events that followed, they do constitute proof that modern hang gliders -- and presumably red-tailed hawks as well -- are sturdy, stable, and can recover from unusual attitudes.
Sometimes the Bird Wins
Dunlap once again. I was lonely, unhappy, depressed, and my beloved Sport 150E was all I had left in the world. I set up, launched, and sought solace in flight. At 8000' MSL over Delilah Lookout I spotted a golden eagle.
Golden eagles are rare at Dunlap. Dunlap is red-tailed hawk country, I don't know why. Perhaps it has something to do with the terrain -- the vegetation may not provide an adequate habitat for an eagle's preferred prey. This eagle was a curiosity.
It was also directly below me, in the same thermal, traveling at precisely the same course and speed. Only our climb rates were different: as I watched, the eagle grew closer.
She -- I assume the bird was female because of her enormous size -- gave no indication she was aware of my presence. It is possible that she did not see me; eagles fear no predator in the skies, and it is reputed that they, alone among birds of prey, never look above or behind them.
I, on the other hand, could see every detail of the eagle, and stared in utter fascination. I could see her primary feathers shift as she made minute adjustments in attitude. I could watch every movement of her head as she looked over the valley below. I was awed and amazed. I forgot my sorrow, then and forever. The experience was unbelievable, unearthly, almost spiritual, like looking down upon an angel.
The eagle rose until she was only 20 feet below me. A collision was imminent. If we both held our course, if neither of us flinched, we would soon be so close that I could reach down and touch her.
I was tempted -- what a unique experience it would have been, to touch an eagle in flight -- but I felt, and still feel, that we humans go through the world touching too many things. In the end, I was the one who flinched. I was the one who banked away. I looked over my shoulder, rolled right, and when I looked back, the eagle -- if she was, in fact, an eagle -- was gone.