From: Billphil@ix.netcom.com (Badwater Bill)
Subject: Flight of the Human Buzzard
Date: Feb 20, 1998
Many years ago I flew hang gliders off a 1000 foot ridge south of the
city of Las Vegas. Hang glider flying was the most spiritual form of
flight I ever experienced. We launched off a horizontal ramp that
extended out into the lift band of the ridge. You'd hook in, do the
hang safety test, pick up your glider and simply walk off the end of
the ramp into the sky. There was no sinking if the wind was up to 15
knots or so, you simply stepped into the sky and rotated your body
horizontal between the two down-tubes above the horizontal crossbar.
In this configuration your head was out in front of the leading edge
of the wing above you and you had no view of the ship around you at
all. It was like flying under your own power with your own wings.
I've thought many times too that it resembled the old Superman movies.
Clark Kent would peal off his clothes and jump head first out of a
25th floor window propelling himself horizontally through the air.
The feeling of walking off a cliff into the sky under the wing of a
hang glider is very similar. Because of this strange and new sensation
of flight I began to have dreams, like the ones I had as a child, of
flying under my own power. As a child I routinely had dreams of
levitating or flying like Superman but those went away as I got into
my teens. Hang gliding rekindled that spark which stimulated such
Peter Lert writes here of the turkey farm and his 1-26 being
interpreted as a large buzzard. It brought back a memory of my
experiences with red-tailed-hawks and hang gliders. In the spring of
the year the baby hawks would hatch and start to fly. Each spring
there was a new batch who would share the lift of the ridge with the
hang gliders. It may be hard to believe but it's true that the babies
couldn't fly very well at all in the beginning. They had terrible
landings, especially in wind. They'd crash and tumble and ground-loop.
They had trouble staying up and they couldn't find a thermal to save
their hide. We had great fun watching them learn to fly and floating
with them on the ridge. In a hang glider, human beings could slow
down to 18 knots, wrap the thing up to 60 degrees and core a thermal.
For the first time in the history of man this machine allowed us to
fly at the same speeds as the baby hawks. They'd watch us find a
thermal then enter along with us, usually above and at our six o'clock
position. If you stretched your neck a bit you could see them in the
rear, turning with you at your six. It usually took about three to
five minutes for them to accept you as something that wasn't out to
eat them. Once that happened the fun began. They would usually dive
on you, shoot by your upper surface and leading edge then drop down
right in front of your face about two meters ahead of you. From this
position you could watch their multivariable dynamic wings work. What
a gorgeous sight as they would pull in the wing on the inside of the
turn and extend the outboard wing to stay in the thermal. Or, they'd
pull in both wings if a gust hit them to counteract the increased
lift. They could change the angle of attach of each wing separately or
even span-wise so each segment of their wing was producing lift
differently. What an advantage.
I remember how I perceived their general collective personality. Once
they weren't afraid of you, they accepted you in their sky and the fun
began. The best way to describe them is they acted like baby kitty
cats. We would make up some small dough balls from flour, lots of
sugar, egg and water the night before a spring flight. We'd dry them
in the oven and load them into our flight suits. The dough-balls were
easy to retrieve while in flight and would penetrate if threw them
toward a bird. Actually I remember flicking them with my thumb like
shooting marbles. The baby hawks loved to eat these dough-balls. If
a bird would miss grabbing the ball as it went by you got to see
absolutely wonderful flight dynamics. Many times the bird would roll
inverted, pulled his wings flush to his body and redirect his path
while twisting and redirecting the flight path with tail feathers.
They looked like a torpedoes shot from a submarine since they could
streamline themselves so well. Then there was competition too.
Sometimes I would fly with three to five birds in the same thermal.
I'd have a bird off to my right, a couple ahead of me, one on the
inside of the turn and maybe even one over head. I'd flick out a
dough-ball and watch them all go for it. They'd roll inverted, spin,
split-S, hammer-head, whatever it took to get to the dough-ball first.
As I said, they have personalities like small house cats and that
best describes how I felt watching them. They were funny and they
loved to play with the big bird of the thermal (me). They were very
intelligent. It was unusual for them to fly with you in the ridge
lift but if you started circling they knew you'd found pay-dirt. If
you snagged a thermal and did more than a couple turns you'd have two
or three heading at you to cash in on the lift. Once established in
the core they could just leave me in the dust. Their sink rate was
much lower than mine and their ability to change the dynamic shape of
their airfoils gave them far superior performance. I've seen them
enter the thermal below me and go whizzing by me vertically at
astonishing rates. However, they would usually throw away their climb
performance to stay with me thinking they might get a dough-ball.
Here's where they really got fun. It seemed like the most common
maneuver was to out-climb me to get the superior energy edge. Perched
behind me and above, they'd do that diving attack-like move until they
were in front of my face and applying speed brakes, all the while
turning in the thermal. From that position anything would happen.
I've seen them roll on their backs and pop their wings (inverted) for
a couple seconds then cut inside on the turn and climb above and
behind me to the superior energy position once more only to repeat the
same move. If you got two or three of them to start playing among
themselves and include you it was spectacular. They'd dive at you
from six o'clock high and roll together right in front of your face.
Then you'd see them split-S, go off in different directions below you.
They'd hide from you somewhere behind and above your wing again for
the next run.
It occurred to me many times as I said above that what we were doing
here was putting ourselves into their environment for the first time
in the history of man. I had flown sailplanes for years and never had
this happen. The reason is that the sailplanes fly too fast. Even an
old clunker S-222 flies at about 40 mph for minimum sink and stalls
in the high 30's. Flying hang gliders was the first time man could
slow down enough to match their speeds in thermals. Slow down and
without a noisy engine to scare them away. We too used them as
thermal finders. If you saw one circling, it was show time.
Interestingly however, if you entered a thermal with them established
first, they would leave for a few moments then reenter. I sometimes
thought that might have been some kind of built in survival mode since
I was so much bigger and scarier to them. Once they determined you
weren't there to eat them they loosened up and joined you. Then their
curiosity got the best of them and although they could out climb you
they usually stayed and played with you, diving and rolling and
spinning. Once you got this far with them you could flip them a dough
ball and it was all over. You were buds for life. You couldn't shake
them if you wanted to.
Garfield, Dave Pincus and a couple of the others have been playing
with me over the past couple days about my inner self . That's all
being done in fun and they are really funny men. However, I've spent
hundreds of hours for real watching the hawks and buzzards soar the
ridges in the heat of the dessert down here in the Southwestern U.S.
When I flew hang gliders I always felt like a big buzzard, sort of
bulky but still pretty capable of thermaling with the hawks.
Although most of these posts are tongue-in-cheek I'll bet many of you
never thought I really had a reason for admiring the buzzard. Carl
Johansson (who is a PhD. Ornithologist) points out the buzzards lack
of manners or it's eating habits and that's funny. But, you watch one
fly and they don't fly funny. In fact they fly better than man ever
has. They are an animal to behold while in flight. I'd be so lucky
to be able to fly like a buzzard! Now, the buzzard's and my eating
habits, social graces, etiquette? Well, now you know why, the
buzzard! Yes! Behold the Buzzard!