As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by birds. I remember sitting on the beach during family vacations to Venice, Fla., as a kid of seven through 13, entranced by pelicans in ones and twos patrolling the roiling Gulf of Mexico surf for fish. The big-beaked birds seemed to have total command of the sky, gliding soundlessly or climbing for an instant with hardly a movement of wing, then diving straight down into the water faster than I could think about it. Their movements seemed so effortless and automatic that I assumed airplanes must be similarly maneuverable and easy to fly.
The local seagulls were equally talented in their quest for food, much of it offered by tourists, including me. When Mom would have old bread to throw out, I would have her save it, walk the half block to the beach and see how many seagulls I could attract by breaking the bread into crumbs and throwing them into the air. It didn’t matter if there seemed to be no gulls around. I needed to only throw one handful of crumbs, and the birds would materialize from every direction. By the second handful, they’d be fighting to snag the precious crumbs in midair. I never saw any seagulls with the talents of a Jonathan, but some of the birds’ aerobatic maneuvers were, nevertheless, hard to believe.
Birds continued to intrigue me through every phase of my flight training. I knew it was dorky, but I studied them in junior high and high school. While working toward my private ticket in a Champion Tri-Traveller out of Long Beach, Calif., I used to practice slow flight in loose formation with a variety of birds that patrolled the rugged Palos Verdes cliffs hard by the Pacific south of Los Angeles. I’d sometimes sneak off to Catalina Island and fly the backside of the mountains, looking for bald eagles alleged to frequent the high hills.
I never saw any eagles over Catalina, but my first close encounter with the type was also in conjunction with a flight rating. I was flying a Skyhawk on floats with my buddy Butch Patterson in southern Oregon. Patterson was a former Vietnam Navy fighter pilot who had dropped out of conventional aviation and elected to become a bush pilot. Today, he’s a game warden in Kodiak, Alaska, but in those days, he had forsaken instructing and selling Mooneys, Tigers and Maules in favor of offering seaplane rides out of a small lake in Florence, Ore., and guiding the occasional student to the water rating.
Patterson knew most of Oregon’s coastal lakes and reservoirs like the back of his hand, and when I dropped in for a visit on a ferry flight from Kerrville, Texas, to Seattle, Wash., he put me in the left seat of his floatplane and directed me to a lake where there were two eagles’ nests. I landed, shut down and dropped anchor, and we watched for two hours as those magnificent birds flew with the dignity of kings. We felt privileged and humbled to witness their incredible command of the sky.
Then there was a brush with a condor in South America. I once read that a condor had been spotted by the crew of a 737 over the Peruvian Andes at an amazing 33,000 feet, but my sighting was slightly lower. I was ferrying a heavily loaded Cessna 207 from Oakland, Calif., to Neuquén, Argentina, far south in the Patagonian desert, and that required crossing the Pan American pass east of Santiago, Chile. The pass is just south of the continent’s highest mountain, Cerro Aconcagua, but the low point of the rocks is still 13,000 feet high. As heavy as I was flying that day, the C-207 was totally tapped out at 12,000 feet.
Just when I was ready to give up and fly the long way around down the Chilean coast, I spotted a huge black condor circling lazily near the ridge. I figured it knew the local terrain better than I did and changed course to fly directly toward it. It was an impressive bird, with perhaps a 10-foot wingspan, and it seemed totally unconcerned about this strange, new, metal bird sharing its updraft. The rising air wasn’t strong, perhaps 100 fpm to 200 fpm, but it seemed to last forever. It took about 15 minutes to elevate the two of us to 14,500 feet before I bailed out of the lift and headed for the ridgeline. The condor continued on up, drifting higher without any visible effort. The last I saw of it, it was a thousand feet above me and still climbing toward the 23,000-foot peak of Aconcagua.
Several years later, I flew a Comanche 260 from Anchorage, Alaska, to Palo Alto, Calif., for an engine change and had migrating geese and ducks for company on practically the entire flight. The weather all the way to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, was at or below 2,000 feet overcast with good visibility underneath, and both general-aviation and bird traffic were operating beneath the clouds, with airplanes trying to stay above 1,000 feet and birds at 500 feet or lower. Birds are smarter than to fly in ice, and Alaskan pilots follow their lead.
Despite the geese and ducks’ obvious talents as fliers, they didn’t have the benefit of 260 hp, so they couldn’t hope to stay with me, but I had to look for airports, whereas the birds could land anywhere they wished. I flew above a succession of bird flights for 1,000 miles, admiring their characteristic V formations. They often seemed to fly a few inches apart, holding position close enough to make even the Blue Angels envious.
More recently, I was returning from a hamburger flight in my Mooney with frequent passenger, fellow pilot and premier Hollywood recording trumpeter Gary Halopoff in the right seat. As we approached the busy Los Angeles Basin, we were both monitoring the Garmin 330 traffic uplink for other airplanes when Gary looked up just in time to see a large bird go whizzing by our right wingtip. “Gee, I wonder if he was squawking,” quipped Gary with a slight smile. I’ll bet he was.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at [email protected].