Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

For The Birds

Birds have more to teach us than we could ever learn

A dozen gulls would seemingly materialize after the first toss. By the second handful, there’d be 30-40 seagulls crowding the airspace, squawking and snapping up bread in midair, performing aerobatics that made a lomcevak look tame by comparison. With a combination of wing warping, variable sweep, asymmetric lift, fully controllable dihedral and a variety of other tricks, those seagulls showed me maneuvers I could never duplicate in an Extra or Pitts.

I’ve watched hummingbirds perform seemingly impossible turns, darting left or right with apparent immunity to the G-forces involved, and I’ve even watched them fly backward. In fact, hummingbirds feature a resilient bone structure that provides both strength and flexibility to allow amazing proficiency at hovering and changing direction in an instant. Inevitably, a researcher using a high-speed camera calculated their turns and twists at a maximum of 10 G’s. That’s more than the most aggressive fighter pilot can endure and well outside the limits of America’s best jet fighters.

Birds have proven their superiority to humans (at least this human) and airplanes on numerous other occasions. Once, while trying to coax a Cessna 207 across the Pan American Pass in the Chilean Andes of South America east of Santiago, I spotted a huge condor soaring in thermals near the ridge, his wings seemingly immobile as he somehow magically arced uphill. His wingspan must have been nearly 10 feet.

I took the hint and joined him on the opposite side of the thermal. I followed the condor in his ascent for several thousand feet, watching him monitor my curious aluminum bird mimicking his every action. I worked the lift until I had the altitude to cross the ridge, then broke away and managed to sneak across the high rocks to Argentina before the big Cessna descended into the granite.

(It may be a local myth, but the story was going around years ago that a Lan Chile crew, operating a Boeing 737 at FL330, spotted an Andean condor cruising above 23,000-foot Cerro Aconcagua, the Andes’ highest mountain.)

Another time in the ’80s, I was flying my Mooney above Northern California, cruising at perhaps 150 knots, when what looked like a bird overtook me on the left and passed by at least 25-30 knots faster. My best speculation was that it was a peregrine falcon. They’re allegedly capable of speeds in excess of 180 knots, and this one seemed to be doing that or more.

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