This article has been around the Web and around the world many times since it appeared in the now-defunct Hang Gliding Mailing List. It began with a thread about hawks attacking gliders. But most encounters are more friendly, such as these three I had in the skies above Dunlap, California.

Encounters in the Sky
  Three Tales of Hang Gliding in the Western Sierra

Golden Eagle

A Bird Story: Sometimes The Hang Glider Wins

For those of you who haven't seen it (and also those who have), Dunlap, California, is a hang gliding site in the Western Sierra, 40 miles northeast of Fresno. It's a reliable site, soarable the year round, with a launch and landing that are challenging, but not too horribly bad. It's a good place for Novice pilots to gain altitude experience, Intermediate pilots to develop thermaling skills, and more ambitious pilots to start going XC. The best time of year is in the spring -- April through June -- when the valleys are warm, the upper air is cold, and the thermals are big, smooth, fat, and tall.

Dunlap is a very pretty site. Like most ridges in the Western Sierra, it gets sufficient rainfall in the spring that the slopes are green, the meadows are filled with flowers, and the mountains to the west are covered with snow. Spring also brings clouds of harmless insects: mayflies, dragonflies, moths and the like. These are food for flocks of swifts, that climb, bank, turn, and dive with superlative skill in pursuit of their diminutive prey.

It is with one of these swifts that my tale is concerned. The year was 1988, the month was May, and I was cruising high over launch in my beloved old Eclipse-17. (Yes, this happened long ago, when men were men, birds were birds, and inexperienced pilots learned to fly on gliders with neutral roll stability). A flash of movement caught my eye. I looked up to see a swift headed straight towards me. The swift was traveling at full speed, like a miniature combat aircraft, in lethal pursuit of some hapless bug. It was also on a collision course with my left wingtip -- a fact of which it appeared to be completely unaware.

There was no time for me to react; all I could do was watch in horrified fasconation. At the last moment, just as collision seemed inevitable, the swift seemed to realize that something was terribly wrong. It rolled level, pulled up hard, and cleared my wingtip by inches...

...then it hit my wingtip vortex.

The results were impressive. The poor creature got clobbered -- rolled more times than you can imagine in much less time than you would believe possible. It finally recovered and flew away, a dizzier and one hopes a wiser bird.

Another Bird Story: Sometimes It's a Draw

Two years later, I was at Dunlap again, flying my beloved old Sport 150E -- proof that I did at one time possess a certain amount of taste. I was at 7200' MSL over Delilah Lookout when I spotted a red-tailed hawk below and ahead of me. We were in the same thermal and the hawk did not seem to mind my presence, so I decided to follow it. It climbed faster than me, and soon we were at the same altitude -- the hawk soaring effortlessly, me 40 feet behind straining to keep up.

Then the bird got hammered by an unheralded but vicious bit of turbulence that flipped it right over on its back. I, a mere second behind, was precisely too close to do anything other than hang onto the control bar and think, "I've changed my mind! I do not want to be here! I want to be somewhere else!"

I do not have a particularly clear memory of the events that followed, but they do constitute proof that modern hang gliders -- and presumably red-tailed hawks as well -- are sturdy, stable, and can recover from unusual flight attitudes.

A Final Bird Story: Sometimes the Bird Wins

Dunlap once again. I was lonely, unhappy, depressed, and my beloved Sport 150E was all I had left in the world. I set up, launched, and sought solace in flight. Then, at 8000' MSL over Delilah Lookout, I spotted a golden eagle.

Golden eagles are rare at Dunlap. This is red-tailed hawk country, I don't know why -- perhaps it has something to do with the terrain, or ground cover that may not provide an adequate habitat for an eagle's preferred prey. So the eagle was most certainly a curiosity. It was also directly below me, in the same thermal, traveling at precisely the same course and speed. Only our climb rates were different -- even as I watched, the eagle grew closer as it ascended.

She -- I assume the bird was female because of its enormous size -- gave no indication that she was aware of my presence. It's possible she didn't see me; eagles fear no predator in the skies, and it is reputed that they, alone among birds of prey, never look above or behind them. I, on the other hand, could see every detail of the eagle. I stared in utter fascination, awed and amazed by the sight. I could see her primary feathers shift as she made minute adjustments to her wings. I could watch every movement of her head as she studied the valley below. The experience was unearthly, unreal, almost spiritual, like looking down upon an angel. I forgot my sorrow, then and forever.

The eagle rose until she was only 20 feet below me. A collision was imminent. If we both held our course, if neither of us flinched, we would soon be so close that I could reach down and touch her.

I was tempted -- what a unique experience it would have been, to touch an eagle in flight! But I felt, and still feel, that we humans go through the world touching too many things. In the end, I was the one who flinched. I was the one who banked away. I glanced over my shoulder to clear my turn, rolled right, and when I looked back, the eagle -- if she was, in fact, an eagle -- was gone.

Paul Gazis
Sunnyvale, CA

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Last modified: 15 October 2009