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Soaring With An Eagle

A number of years have gone by, perhaps twelve or fifteen since the flight that I can never forget, nor would I want to forget it. I’m certain that the old logbook with the original entry is still around the house. I have never known of an aviator, nor could I imagine one, who would discard a treasured logbook. I was always fond of carefully printing highlights of my flight in the remarks section of the log, such as, “towering cumulous to the north,” or, “passenger Gary Duncan was along for the ride,” or, “the rear seat in the Blanik popped up in turbulence and became jammed against the stick.” (another story) An FAA district agent examined my logs once and chuckled at my remarks. Should I find the logs, I could verify the dates and altitudes exactly. There is just the matter of looking for them, or waiting long enough, and somehow they will turn up on their own volition. However, the story demands to be told now.

The single entry that I remember in the remarks section of the log was, “golden eagle.” The workday began in suit and tie in a dark dreary office in Grand Junction, CO. A few hours into mid morning, suffering from that cooped up feeling that I imagined were similar to the pains of incarceration felt by prison inmates and residents of the Soviet Union, I called an important client who lived sixty-five miles to the south. I needed to see him in person within the next several weeks, and I hoped that he would deliver me from the oppressed white-collar bondage that very morning. Alas, though I was still engaged in business, I was free from the office and on my way to an early afternoon appointment.

Most sailplane pilots are sky gazers. Many of us keep a weather eye cocked at all times. We are Captain Ahab’s, looking for the great white whale of a wonderfully formed cumulous cloud. Like Captain Ahab, our adventures are very real, but never vindictive like the captain’s. As soon as I was in the car, I suspected that the day would turn out to be an unusually fine day for soaring. The problem was, I worked Mondays thru Fridays and I felt that soaring during the work- week was just out of the question. Saturday and Sunday would come around soon enough. As I neared Delta, Colorado enroute to Montrose, Colorado I could no longer contain my excitement. Conditions, I judged, would be absolutely perfect in the next hour or so for a wonderful ride and as a bonus, I would not have to compete with a gaggle of my fellows for stick time like I did on the weekends. In fact, often I found myself behind the controls of the tow plane rather than the sailplane. I stopped at a pay phone and tried to reach the soaring operation in Crawford, Colorado. There was no answer. I tried again a few minutes later. No answer. Then I lost all sense of propriety, called my client, politely cancelled with some inane excuse and headed to Crawford with the prayer that I could find the proprietor of the airfield, Delta County Judge, Lynn French. If his court was not in session that morning, he might be out and about the airfield on his tractor.

His honor was just where I hoped to find him. It didn’t take long to convince him to drop everything that he was doing and give me a tow. Soon, I was strapping into the Blanik L-13, giving Lynn the signal, and off I went. As a newer soaring pilot, with lots of power time, I often found myself scratching for altitude, trying not to embarrass my self with abbreviated flights, while one of my children or one of the other glider pilots children sat in the back seat. We always tried to take a kid if they were around. The uninitiated adults were often left to pay hard earned dollars for the privilege to soar like an eagle. Often, as I watched the vario needle droop, I would beg over the radio to one of the big guns that frequented the field, like Bill Hill, or Hill Billy as we fondly called him, for the best place to hunt for a thermal. Some how he always knew where to look. This time I was alone. I released from the Belanca Scout at one thousand feet agl, which was about six thousand five hundred msl. Instantly I was on an express elevator. The twenty-eight to one glide ratio that always paled in comparison to the glass ships gave me every thing that I needed, and then some. The variometer was solid up, up, up. I worked my way over the beautiful countryside and soon found myself at fourteen thousand feet over a National Park, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. From the vantage point I looked directly down, a mile or so below into the dark shadows of one of the deepest gorges in North America. And then I saw it. Just a dark spot really, not much more, but obviously a bird, most likely an eagle. We were circling at the same altitude and the same direction. How far away was he? Who could tell? How big would an eagle look at an eighth mile, or a quarter mile, or even a mile away? And the big question to me was, what on earth is he doing up here? He certainly can’t spot game at this altitude. Even an eagle can’t see a rabbit from this elevation, and if he did see a rabbit it would take a minute or more to descend and catch it. The only answer that seemed reasonable was that he was here for the fun just like me. As I gazed at him, he seemed to be getting a little bigger, a little closer. We flew together, at a still respectable distance, for perhaps two or three minutes, then suddenly, with no apparent provocation on my part, or so it seemed, the eagle closed in on me at what seemed like supersonic speed.The Blanik suddenly seemed to be the target of a high-speed aircraft. Incredibly, and instantaneously, the golden eagle stopped directly over my canopy, its talons only inches above my baldhead and its fierce eyes looking straight into my eyes. I flinched uncontrollably, ducked my head, but managed to hold the stick steady. Its colors were magnificent and its wingspan seemed to extend a good four feet on either side of its body. To be honest, it could not have stayed with me for more than five or six seconds. But close your eyes and imagine seeing something truly wonderful for the first time, and while your eyes are closed count to six. Those six seconds left an indelible image on my mind forever. The eagle rocketed away as quickly as it arrived, in total control, with supreme confidence the likes of which I have never seen before or since. Was the animal issuing a warning or was it just curious? Did it want to fight the big Blanik, or did the bird know, as it looked me in the eye that a human being had intruded into its realm and the Blanik was just the human’s humble vehicle?

I flew along for some time after it left, perhaps fifteen minutes, a half hour, just day dreaming about the encounter. Suddenly I noticed that the bright afternoon with all of its sharply defined cumulous had become very, very dark. The vario needle was pegged straight up to its limit. I was being sucked into the base of a huge cumulous cloud, the equivalent to a stellar black hole for any glider, and in a few seconds would be flying in IMC. The cloud was just about to become a big thunderstorm. I deployed the spoilers about half way and only slowed the climb, then full spoilers and a dive allowed me to escape the impending maw of the cloud, about ten miles in circumference, and I headed back to the field. I went back to my office and spent a good week, off and on, daydreaming of my close encounter. I talked to my friends, Hill Billy, Lynn French, John Linke and others about the experience. I believe it was Bill Hill, who also happens to have some great soaring credits to his name, told me the experience was not totally unheard of in the realm of soaring pilots. Bill advised that if it ever happened again to be sure to hold the stick steady, just as I had done. Not to do so would risk serious injury or death to one of nature’s most magnificent works, and who knows what it might do to a glider pilot without a parachute.

I’ve been fortunate to live in the wilds of the Rocky Mountain West for a good part of my life. Last summer, 2002, I spent most of my time with a crew of Native American wildfire fighters. I got to know and respect members of the Lakota, Dakota, and Oglala Sioux tribes along with firefighters from the Navajo Nation and a few people from the pueblos of the southwest. Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico was well represented. I was fascinated with the respect that the Native American people have for the environment and animal life. Many of these people are given an animal totem at some point in their life. Perhaps an elk, a deer or a bear is chosen to watch over them. One evening several of my new friends announced to me that my totem was to be a golden eagle. Maybe they were serious, and maybe they were just enjoying good camaraderie. I had never told any of them of my close encounter with the eagle.

Some of our best soaring sites have disappeared due to development and Crawford, CO, the last I heard, is no longer making a concerted effort to keep glider pilots happy. I drove by, looking for old friends and a place to soar in the summer of 2002. Hung high in the rafters of a fairly new hangar was a beautiful old Slingsby Swallow. She was still bright green under the accumulated dust, and the birds were using her for a perch. With a little care she could be flying again in no time. Maybe the eagle would like to meet the swallow someday.

Posted: 5/9/2003 By: Wells Hobgood


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