Birds do the strangest things! They’re like us that way. Also like us, most of what they do is predictable, even if its logic is not always conspicuous. Instinct, whatever that is.
Yes, but exceptions proving the rule are what afford insight.

One ordinary summer evening I stepped from thick pines into a clearing about the length of a soccer pitch and half as wide. It was calm at ground level, but you could hear a good breeze tickling treetops. There, at the clearing’s downwind edge I counted nine individual birds of at least five different species, golden eagle, vulture, raven and more than one kind of hawk, hovering uniformly line abreast and seeming almost to ignore each other even while soaring only yards apart.

Ask yourself, what circumstance could have brought that particular menagerie together and choreographed such a spectacle? Normally, eagles hunt rabbits and hawks take the squirrels. Vultures prefer revolting dead stuff, while ravens just look for trouble and eat everything they find. In this case however, none seemed to have anything in mind but simply seizing the day, like humans lolling in local wave on a winter Sunday. I have to think they were inspired by the same curiosity and whimsical pleasure we all share with invisible currents that defy gravity, especially unusual or unexpected ones. What else could it be?

No knowing how long that odd squad had floated there waiting for me, but after a while I tired of standing beneath them and lay down to watch, propping my head on a mossy rock. Supposing I’d never see anything like it again, I sought to comprehend as holistically as possible, triangulating from those birds’ eyes through my perspective as a soaring pilot, to a frame of fluid dynamics — and back. That, on such a timelessly peaceful evening, was evidently too much. It drew down the current in other parts of my brain, and when I woke the birds were gone…

Oh you’d be right to doubt this tale, but don’t! I didn’t dream it or dream it up, and have no need to exaggerate. That’s what really happened, Cub Scouts’ honor (a two-fingered salute for those of you not in the know). If we were to monitor that clearing for years and years I bet we’d see some kind of similar performance there, rarely but inevitably, time and again. A bet no fool would take. Either way, the sky, like the birds and ourselves, is also both predictable and a source of insightful exception.

Or are we like it?


To distinguish wavelets barely large enough for a sailplane, on the scale of a mile or less, some bandy the prefix micro. Admittedly flippant and imprecise by several orders of magnitude, but I’m okay with it. So if that’s allowed, for this riplet above the clearing I nominate nano. Why not after all? We need to call it something.

And one wonders, while I was busy dozing, did the nanowave eventually flatten out, or do birds get bored too? Both, is my guess.


While the calendar says we’re about halfway through winter, out here in the desert it feels like spring has begun — and even if it really hasn’t yet, it won’t be much longer. That one rainy spell we had is well behind us with no more in sight for now, so the next few days will be much like the last few with variable high clouds, light wind and pleasant temperatures. Probably no records will be set at Crystal this week, except perhaps for creativity in finding and using lift…



Our wettish week of occasional precipitation should come to an end Thursday.  It’s been good for snow in the mountains, which now will likely last till spring, but did little more than damp down the dust out here in the desert.  No surprise there.  Wave conditions hidden up inside low cloud cover will also flatten out, leaving lots of light-and-variable and partly-to-mostly for the coming week… with some chance of the season’s first little thermals in any rogue sunny patches.  A midwinter night’s dream.


We’re all suckers for cliches, not even like we have a choice. We hear some new phrase and get how it works the way babies learn syntax, then it infects our own vocabulary before we’ve even thought about it. Third time you hear the same words in a different context, it’s already a cliche. Fourth is when it spills from your lips unbidden. Cliches may not all live forever, but most will outlast any of us.

I avoid them like ants in a campsite, meaning with little success, and when they persist I try to expedite them somehow. Not only in print for stylistic reasons, but more importantly in general speech, and therefore in thought. Carelessness in thought and speech reinforce each other. Still, however effectively you ‘expedite’, there’ll always be another ant cliche. If they weren’t so small, torturing them might be more fun, but as it is there are better ways to waste my time. Wagged any dogs lately, tail?

Cliches form by verbal accretion because they encapsulate some kind of truth. The ancient bromide about old pilots versus bold ones is… wait for the cliche… a prime example.

Like apparently all kids, I grew up knowing I would never get old, and somehow maintained the self-deception well across one of our vaguest cliches, middle age. How could a simple minded luddite get this far with most of my original equipment still operational? Copious doses of dumb luck is part of the answer, plus some degree of undeserved providence… Wait, you say, there’s a difference? (If there were no difference, silly, they wouldn’t each have their own cliches!) Luck is always dumb, whether it’s the good kind or not, and providence is always predetermined, deserved or otherwise. Sorting that out is like untying a knot, follow one strand first to see where it comes from or risk tightening it before you start.

Anyway… I was coming down from my first flight in something hotter than a 1-26, intoxicated with that godlike feeling, when I woke up on downwind leg screaming across treetops. Yes it was also my first-ever low pass, totally unpremeditated…

Parallel to the runway lay a wide ridge a hundred feet high, that from overhead hardly showed as a hill. Before pulling up I glanced over — and couldn’t even see the airport. Which summoned one of the earliest of a bazillion timely epiphanies in my soaring life. If I misjudged my energy, or pulled up too late, it could be suddenly impossible to reach the runway…

Every moment in flight is subject to prior judgment, and all judgment depends on experience. That day, I had almost none of either. Forty years later I dug out a tattered logbook to find the entry, and it reveals more now than I could imagine at the time:

Greatest flight ever.  Loops, dog fight with hawk, twice below clouds and back up 6000’.  Cloud descents, improvised pattern.

Cloud descents, plural? It was the last flight on that page, and below it my time totaled not quite 157 hours. Bold perhaps, but lightyears short of old.

Uh oh, did I just coin a cliche?