I was absolutely heartsick! There's no other way to describe it. It's as if a good friend had died, which in a way was true. As I rounded the corner toward the gate to the ramp, I sensed something was wrong. I could see sky and roof line where they should have been hidden from sight by branches. Then, as I closed the distance, an alarm went off in my mind and in my heart: The Owl Tree had been cut down! Oh my god! Luckily, there was no one else in the car to hear the despair in my voice. I didn't want to believe what my eyes said was true. One of my good friends and fellow flyers at Scottsdale Muni, who had shared the air with me for over 20 years, had just been rendered homeless: The tree was gone, so my friend, a great horned owl, was also gone. Never to return.
I know this probably sounds silly to a lot of people. However, when my hangar mate, who flew F-100s and 105s during the Vietnam ugliness (he's definitely not a big softie), arrived, he said, "I can't believe it! Did you see they cut down the owl's tree? What's going to happen to him? I'm absolutely sick!" At that point, I knew I wasn't alone in my reaction.
From the day that I moved onto this airport in early '92, the "Owl Tree" has been a subject of great interest to just about every pilot I know. It was a well-developed eucalyptus with lots of big branches and leafy caverns that I quickly learned housed a great horned owl. Sometimes two. It grew right next to one of the main FBO buildings not more than 20 feet from the parking lot I passed on the way to my hangar every day. I got great pleasure out of pulling into that parking lot without saying a word to my student. Then I'd get out of the car and walk across the grass and start looking up into the tree searching for my friend.
My students had no idea what was going on. But, they'd follow me. And they'd look up into the tree, as I was doing, without having a clue why. Then, they'd spot those two big eyes staring down at us, as if my feathered friend was saying, "Oh okay, go ahead and look. You're not likely to see another like me anytime soon." And, of course, he was right.
Once in a while, it would leap into space, and those huge wings (as in more than six feet across) would suck energy out of the air and transform it into flight. He'd effortlessly soar across the parking lot, do a wing-over on the other side and glide back to his resting place without moving a wing. Show over, he'd ignore us and stare into space or simply nod off for a quick nap.
I can't begin to explain the feeling of watching him show off for us. He was incredibly majestic, and just the fact that he was willing to share his version of flight with us totally made our week.
I'll bet I've shared that experience with nearly 500 students, and every one of them reacted in the same way. As they'd be standing under the tree staring up, not knowing what it was they were looking for, and I could always tell the exact moment when they'd catch sight of my unnamed friend. Their eyes would light up, and a grin would crease their face. Every pilot to whom I introduced The Owl was visibly affected. I think it's a pilot thing: There's something about flight that bonds many of us to birds of all kinds.
Just yesterday, Marlene and I were having lunch at an outdoor patio, and birds were everywhere around us. I was focused on a single sparrow at my feet that didn't even acknowledge our existence as he hopped and flittered around on the floor, picking up crumbs here and there. I started crumbling bread and flinging the crumbs some distance away just so I could watch him seamlessly transition from being a two-legged hopping creature to one that knew and utilized the third dimension as if it were part of his soul. I found it fascinating how easily he flew just a few feet. He appeared to draw no hard distinction between being on the ground or in the air and transitioned from one to the other with zero effort.
As with all sparrows, this one was tiny. In the big picture of life, he was probably judged by most as being insignificant. I, however, saw him as anything but insignificant. Here he was, a fragile little thing that I could easily crush in my fingers, with a brain so small I probably couldn't measure it, yet he had mastered flight with no outside help. And I haven't. I need all manner of expensive apparatus to fly. He needed nothing.
In actual fact, I think I'm jealous of the sparrow. His flight and his life haven't been cluttered up by those artificial burdens we've placed upon ourselves. The sparrow has only to worry about feeding himself. He doesn't worry about catching up on his emails, what the next politician will do or what disaster will befall him. I think I'm most jealous of his simple life. Where did we go wrong?
Now, every single time I drive onto the airport, I think of my Owl. Except it's not actually a single "owl:" My friend was the third great horned generation to live in the same tree since I've lived here. I knew them all. And each would tolerate us poking our noses into their private world. They shared their existence with us, as if saying, "I fly. You fly. So somehow we must be related." I think they're right. And there are definitely worse things in life than being related to an owl.