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Where the birds are

Area pilots, enthusiasts share the skies

Posted: September 13, 2013 3:03 p.m.
Updated: September 16, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Photos courtesy of Rick Bell/

Jay Campbell, a sailplane pilot, is pictured above in his plane. He has flown for 18 years and owns a single-seater Ventus glider and is part owner of a two-seater Duo-Discus.

A simple word change to Connie Francis’s 1961 signature tune "Where the Boys Are" could morph that classic into the perfect theme song for aviators. "Where the birds are" seems a fitting anthem for that confederation of sky jockeys who seek the thrill of flight in jets, helicopters, and sailplanes. Those pilots are keenly aware that they invade the natural habitat of birds and take precautionary measures to avoid unwanted encounters.

Camdenite Joe Shull pilots a KingAir turboprop certified to 25,000 feet, far above the normal bird range. He does recall once sighting an eagle at 18,000 feet and thinking, "Good gracious what’s that bird doing at this altitude?" It’s during ascent and descent through the altitudes more commonly frequented by birds that requires a see-and-avoid strategy.

"At certain times of year, we might get information on flight plan NOTAMS (notices to airmen), that provide warnings of migratory birds in the area," said Shull. "Small birds pose no problems, but a head-on strike by a goose, duck, or eagle is another matter."

Retired USAF flight surgeon, Rick Bell, attests to the rare but tragic results of a bird strike.

"A collision between an F-16 speeding at 600 knots and a 25-pound bird can be catastrophic. The military employs special systems, such as BASH (bird air strike hazard) to help prevent confrontations with our feathered friends," he said. "But visual strategies are also critical for low level missions."

Helicopter pilots agree that sight vigilance at the low altitudes is mandatory. Birds, like utility wires, fall into the same category -- to be avoided.

Then there are sailplane pilots like Jay Campbell, who also keep a steady eye out for birds, but for totally different reasons.

"We’re frequently on a sharp lookout for eagles, buzzards, hawks, and we go where they are -- where the birds are," Campbell explains. "Gliders do not have engines, and depend on the sun for power. As the sun warms the ground, the air in contact with the ground heats until it gets enough buoyancy and becomes a bubble of warm rising air. Birds circling at treetops are in these small bubbles. Gliders can maneuver in the larger bubbles, or as we call them, thermals. So when you see buzzards circling, not flapping, it’s not because they see a dead rabbit -- they’re climbing in a rising column of air."

By applying this science to bird-watching, pilots can identify such thermals -- the desirable phenomenon that provides lift and the ability to climb without an engine.

Campbell told of a time he was mesmerized watching three buzzards in the middle of a field. One jumped up, flapped a bit, then fell to the ground. A second did the same, than another. They continued their little dance until one jumped, flapped, and then started circling. The others followed, and they all climbed out of sight.

"There are lift markers out there for us glider pilots," he said.

Other markers are cumulus (cauliflower-shaped) clouds. The scientific explanation in a nutshell is that clouds form as the moisture in the air condenses over a bubble of warm rising air.

So a cloud, like a bird, shows where the lift is. Campbell explained that CU (cumulus, pronounced "Q") days are ideal for gliding, although a clear blue cloudless day still has lift; it’s just not marked by clouds. Birds and clouds are helpful, but two absolute necessities for soaring are daylight and visual flight rules.

The most essential instruments are the airspeed indicator; altimeter, which measures altitude; and the variometer, which indicates rising, falling or neutral air. This instrument tells the pilot in a very sophisticated manner what the birds know from the feel of their feathers out on their wings. Pilots are able to steer and alter direction by making tail and wing adjustments with the rudder, joystick and flap handle.

Amazingly, these simple applications can allow flight speeds of up to 160 mph and flight durations of five hours or more, depending on performance capabilities of both aircraft and pilot, but especially atmospheric conditions and the ability to refuel from lift gained in a thermal. The opposite of a long soaring flight is referred to as a "sled ride," suggesting that the ride seems to end faster than the climb.

Campbell owns a single-seater Ventus glider and is part owner of a two-seater Duo-Discus. Some pilots own their sailplanes, some are partners, some rent.

When asked about cost of a sailplane, Campbell told the story of how he learned to handle that question. Rarely in his 18 years of soaring has he had to land somewhere other than his destination point. But one time he "ran out of lift," and opted for a soft farm field touchdown. The good old boy farmer tractor-towed the glider out of the field and asked Campbell, "So how much you got in that there thing?" When Campbell threw out a figure, the farmer laughed and said, "Heck, I got more’n that in my bass boat!" So anyone who now asks about cost gets a return question from Campbell, "You got a bass boat?" which translates to anywhere between $1,500 and $200,000.

Gliders, by the way, are designed for easy disassembling. Campbell and the farmer had the plane packed up in about 20 minutes’ time, ready to be returned to the gliderport via trailer.

Sailplane pilots are licensed under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the same governing body for power pilots. Various classes of competition are based on the performance capability of the aircraft. Most events are timed contests on courses that are laid out similar to sailboat regatta races. While buoy markers outline the track for boats, glider competitions are programmed into a flight recorder. Every second, the latitude, longitude and altitude of the glider’s path is logged by a secure software program. Individual performances can then be measured and compared, allowing on-line competitions anywhere in the world. Campbell currently holds several records for a plotted course in South Carolina.

Besides the serious competition, there are occasional fun events, such as precision contests where 5-pound bags of flour are dropped from the sailplane onto a target. Campbell says these events are simply designed as an excuse to eat hotdogs and enjoy beverages with fellow pilots at his sailing club, the Bermuda High Soaring Club, based in Jefferson in Lancaster County.

The club, founded in 1963, is named for the high-pressure weather feature that sits over the island of Bermuda. Jefferson is strategically located far enough away from the Class B air space near Charlotte, but is geographically ideal for the Columbia, Florence, Camden and Charlotte markets. Scenic rides are provided, but the major business is pilot flight training.

"Bermuda High is well known across the country," co-owner Frank Reid said. "It has the best safety record of any organization in the United States. We attract pilots from as far away as California."

Reid’s operation was busy September 5, with trainees from North Carolina and Virginia taking to the skies for instruction. Campbell was scheduled to pilot a first-timer on a scenic ride in the Duo-Discus. The sapphire sky was promising, with mid-level cauliflower-shaped clouds sprouting up, as the golf cart pulled Campbell’s glider to the launching end of the airfield. With no engine, sailplanes depend on golf carts when on the ground, and on power planes when lifting off. The towrope was connected from the tail of the tow plane to the nose of the glider, and in a matter of seconds, the Duo-Discus was airborne, heading for the clouds.

It was exactly one hour later that it touched down on the grassy airstrip, and both pilot and rider signaled a "thumbs-up."

"We towed to 2,800 feet, and I thought, ‘we’re getting off here,’ as I detected a nice thermal," Campbell said during the flight debrief.

Sure enough, immediately after release from the tow plane, they were able to rise to 4,500 feet in that thermal. Six additional thermal fuel stops were made, allowing for a flight classified far better than a sled ride.

"It was amazing to be almost one mile high, and see a bald eagle a couple hundred feet below us," said the exhilarated rider. "It was just beautiful."

Jae Walker, a world team sailplane pilot visiting from Pennsylvania agreed.

"Eagles are very unique with their white heads and tails, and I see them about every third flight or so," Walker said, further explaining, "There are many species that fly with the thermals. Smaller birds may be catching insects that are swept about with the thermals. Larger birds may be migrating and covering large distances, same as we do. The key strategy is to stay above them, as they tend to dive if they panic."

Campbell believes that the local Jefferson buzzard population seems comfortable sharing the friendly skies with the sailplanes.

"They seem to know us and just keep flying. But a transient buzzard might screech ‘AACK’ and dive out. I guess it believes I’m a big bird come to eat him!" he said.

The huge grin on the face of the rider testified to his delightful experience of soaring with the birds.

"I loved it!" he exclaimed, "When can I go again?"

When is yet to be determined, but for sure it will be where the birds are!

(Information on location, instruction, events, and rates for Bermuda High Sailing is on the website, www.glider.org. SSA.org carries a link for other gliderport sites. Rick Bell is author Paddy Bell’s husband.)

 

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