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
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
There was no time for me to react; all I could do was watch in
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
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
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Last modified: 15 October 2009