Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 25, 2013

For The Birds

Birds did it long before humans, and they still do it better

I was delivering a Malibu to Neuquen, Argentina, a few years ago, flying the route we usually take to Patagonia in South America. The navigation is pretty simple—keep the ocean on the right until you run out of land.

On the long leg from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to Arica, Chile, I was cruising along the Peruvian coast at a comfortable 19,000 feet, luxuriating in glycerin-smooth air, marveling at the remarkably cloud-free visibility above the spectacular Andes. To my right was nothing but blue Pacific, to my left was a quickly rising plain to knife-like mountains stacked 20,000 feet closer to the sky. In South America, the foothills start at sea level rather than 15,000 feet, as in the Himalayas.

As I looked down at the plains near the coast, I spotted the outline of a giant hummingbird on the ground. It was one of several figures on the plains of Nazca. I could clearly make out the distinct bird shape, a creation of the Nazca people of the sixth century AD. (And, no, I doubt that aliens made them do it.)

The hummingbird apparently was a god to the Nazcas, and that's not a surprise. I, for one, understand their reverence. Birds, in general, and the hum­­ming­bird, in particular, deserve every pilot's respect. Even 110 years into the age of powered flight, birds remain far more talented at flying than mere humans with their artificial, manmade aircraft.

Long before I earned a license to learn to fly, I was fascinated with bird flight. As a kid in Alaska, I used to watch the migration of waterfowl every year. I marveled at every aspect of birds' natural flying ability: how easily and precisely they maintained formation; how effortlessly birds could leap into the air from land or water, often with no takeoff run at all; how they could maneuver so accurately, performing aerobatics instantly and changing direction in what seemed to be 90-degree turns. I knew just enough about flying to appreciate that no single aircraft had all those talents. Even helicopters couldn't perform the same tricks.

Hummingbirds have always been the most fascinating to me. I don't go out stalking them with binoculars and long telephoto lenses, but I've had feeders in my backyard practically everywhere I've lived for the last 40 years. On occasion, the little guys have humored me with displays of agility that even Patty Wagstaff in her Extra 330 couldn't match.

Their wings can beat as fast as 5,000 times a minute, allowing them to maneuver unlike any other bird. There was an internet video going around a while back that showed two of the little devils fighting over food, performing loops, rolls and even flying inverted and backwards (although not at the same time); then, stopping in mid-air and darting away in the opposite direction with almost instant acceleration. I've often wondered what G-loads they must endure.

I've watched seagulls do similar maneuvers along Florida's Gulf Coast, fighting over bread crumbs thrown into the air. Some of their aerial battles are reminiscent of unlimited aerobatic competitions. I know I spotted a vertical roll, several loops, a humpty bump or two, and I thought I saw one seagull perform a full Lomcevak in pursuit of the food I tossed in the air. Birds have an inherent ability to maneuver that puts even an Edge 540 to shame.

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