Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

For The Birds

Birds have more to teach us than we could ever learn

A bird also may have helped me find my destination in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In the late ’80s, long before the age of GPS, I was flying an Australia-bound Navajo below an overcast of thunderstorms and miscellaneous meteorological misery, when the nondirectional beacon at Majuro went off the air 340 nm from my destination. Majuro is about 2,000 nm from Honolulu, and except for Johnston Island 700 miles out, there’s not even a rock sticking up to navigate by. I had little choice but to find the atoll by dead reckoning.

I spotted a seagull below holding a steady course, his wings barely fluttering in the updrafts off the water. He seemed to be flying in the same direction I was, so I turned slightly left to follow his heading and spotted the ring atoll two hours later.

It turned out there’d been a power failure on the island, and someone had allowed the gas tank for the NDB’s backup generator to run dry. Fortunately, the seagull didn’t need the NDB.

Birds have an impressive ability to maintain flight for long periods of time, partially a function of their capacity for reading the wind. My buddy, bush pilot Butch Patterson, and I once set down on a remote Oregon lake in his float-equipped Skyhawk and watched several bald eagles glide effortlessly for what seemed like hours, occasionally swooping down to snap up a rabbit or a mouse and deliver it to their nests.

One small migratory flyer, a bar-tailed godwit, may hold the record for sustained flight without refueling. The bird was tagged and fitted with a GPS encoder in Anchorage, then tracked by satellite from Alaska to New Zealand nonstop in nine days. That’s nearly 8,100 nm without changing tanks.

I’ve been fortunate to fly a wide variety of airplanes in the last half century, some that could perform some amazing tricks. None of them, however, was as talented as even the simplest bird.

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