I’ve traveled to many countries but the craziest, most exciting voyage I ever took was just three miles from home. This journey was neither Northwest nor Southeast, – but straight up. Of all the thrills in a life time of voyages, chasing hawks was the ultimate. It has been many years now but the experience lingers.
After a childhood watching birds, flying kites and jumping out of trees with umbrellas, I satisfied a dream by getting my glider pilot’s license. Two years later I purchased a white and blue Schweitzer 1-26 sailplane. I learned the New England air currents and updrafts all over the Green Mountains of Vermont as well as Salem New Hampshire. The sensation was hushed isolation in a magical setting, kind of like entering a secret forbidden place of hushed silence. First I was towed off the runway by a cacophonous tow plane connected by a 50 foot yellow nylon tow rope. At 3,000 feet I pulled the rope release and was cut off. It was an eerie, dangerous world with no visible means of support totally devoid of sound. I imagined the deep basso profundo voice of some deity intoning:
“You don’t belong here among the clouds! YOU WERE NOT MEANT TO BE HERE! GET OUT IMMEDIATELY!!”
The only sound was the occasional groan of the aluminum wing spars when hitting a strong updraft. Heat rising from a sun baked parking lot below, or from a stinking garbage dump fire or maybe hot air from a group of politician’s conference. It can carry a glider straight up at 300 feet per minute or more. If you really want to make the spars groan, pass under a thunder-head cloud and you can feel a powerful push up in the seat of your pants at a rate of more than 1,000 feet per minute.
Circle around in the “up air” you will be rewarded with a longer higher flight in your pilot’s log book, fewer tow charges and bragging rights with fellow pilots. Alternatively, hang around in a down draft, you will be back landing on the ground ahead of the tow pilot- and he is making a full power dive. That Celestial God I thought I heard doesn’t want you soaring higher and higher. He seems to keep you out of the updrafts. Typically only one of your wing tips feels an up draft first and shoots up. This diverts you in a turn away from the raising air column.
Down drafts are the reverse- they suck you in. You end up flying through a forest of updrafts and get bounced out of all of them. One solution is at the first sensation if, say your right wing lifts up, is to slam the control stick to the right, kick right rudder and force the plane to turn into instead of away from the rising air. Once in the column you lower the right wing further so as to make the tightest turn into the smallest diameter spiral so you are carried up higher and higher in the fastest rising air.
If you don’t care for this blindly hunting for up air and you don’t even like the stink of rising smoke from garbage dumps, there is an alternative-keep an eye out for birds. You don’t see many sparrows, ducks or turkeys up here. Updrafts are reserved for the upper echelon soaring birds, seagulls and hawks. Somehow they are always where the wind is going up fastest. Swing in behind a soaring bird and you are sure to be headed up. Seagulls, are the peace loving, loopy goofballs of the sky. You can pull up closer and closer to them and
“Hey Man, I’m cool with whatever.”
No harsh beaks, no talons, no sweat. Gulls don’t mind sharing the up draft with anybody. You can even fly your quarter ton aluminum albatross up to “goose” their tail feathers and no matter- they are the doves of soaring.
Hawks are the hawks of updrafts. They are mean dudes but like any bully being chased by a bigger bully, they know when to fold. You could say they are versed in the Darwinian facts of life. You fly a 600 pound glider up anywhere near a falcon in an updraft and you’ve got his attention. Any closer and he will instantly fold his wings and become a 120 mph falling arrow as he dives to escape the threat.
That was the position I found myself one beautiful summer afternoon at 15,000 feet above the Salem, New Hampshire glider port. Mr. Falcon, I’ll call him Hank, saw me approaching rapidly from behind. He folded his great wings and dove. The FAA and the Audubon Society may not condone such behavior, but I decided to follow him into the dive and pushed the stick forward. The glider headed straight down. Hank was not OK with a high speed chase. He thought he was now going to be someone else’s lunch. My state of affairs was no better: I was less than 100 seconds from eternity and becoming bug splat on some farmer’s corn field. The air screamed by, the airframe shudder and bucked as the speed approached 130 mph, well above red line. The dive lasted a few seconds, but the adrenalin rush remained for decades.
Hank like all large birds of prey has a face as sharp as a stone. There shouldn’t be any emotional content in his expression. However after that 10,000 foot dive, Hank turned to look back and saw me right behind him- I detected anxiety expression in his look.
Hank flew home to the Misses to boast of his heroic death defying escape. I made my way back to the landing field and never told my wife.