Except for the mythic condor, pelicans are the largest birds in North America. Enormous flocks, properly referred to as squadrons, migrate seasonally through our western corner of the Mojave, NW in spring and SE in fall, across wide stretches of desert between waters where they feed. For reasons only they could know, they never utilize the tremendous lift in our local mountains. Every time we see them approaching or sailing away, it always seems more about course line than local geography. And right now the NW season is upon us.
When thermaling, pelicans form into huge silvery spheres like holograms of bubbles in the sky, slowly pulsing from light to dark to light as they circle. It’s wickedly tempting to fly near them, share in their lift and get a closer look, but we really shouldn’t. I wrote some time ago about feeling a pelican’s tail brush our wheel when I came too close, and how scared I was for the bird. Risk of collision, though, is not the only issue.
Could these creatures with brains the size of a walnut have reasoned responses to aircraft? Doesn’t seem likely. Yet their actions do display definite organization. We’ve all seen flocks of birds, schools of fish, or even clouds of insects sashaying in perfect unison, as with one mind. Enough to make even a drill sergeant smile.
And we mar this ineffable beauty every time we intrude.
Any time I’ve tried to join flocking birds they’ve broken formation and fled, some reversing course, to form up again only after I fell behind or below. Animals in migration operate on tight budgets of time and fuel, and can’t afford to consume either precious resource dodging fools like us. We must appreciate this and leave them to their far more serious business.
But what if they approach us? One unforgettable day we were already circling in a predictable manner and posing no threat when at least a hundred pelicans swirled up from below. For one long dreamlike minute, a fog of enormous white wings floated all around us, above and below, ahead and behind, wafting silently inside a feather pillow fallen dizzily upward. Borne aloft by avatars!
Soon they’d climbed high overhead and gone for the season, but talk about goosebumps! That may always remain my single most gratifying encounter in the sky, made possible simply because we let them initiate contact.
This coming week will be mostly about what the wind decides to do. Thursday’s blowing solid from the west, but that may subside on Friday and Saturday, with fair weather from either northeast or southwest depending which forecast you believe. Then on Sunday and Monday, wind is scheduled to return from the southwest, with wave almost certain – crosswinds permitting. In other words, typical spring weather.
Tibor arrived in North America penniless and unfamiliar with the language, but well before I met him he’d established a chain of studios specializing in child photography and become modestly wealthy. This despite the fact that he was a terrible photographer who tended to frighten children and even small dogs. He’s the best example I’ve ever met of someone you have to love, even while they fill you with dread of what might happen next.
He was an adolescent in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis invaded, bless his heart. With hoards of others, he ran for his life into Russia and ended up a cadet flying Yaks. Before long, the way he told it, all the ‘real’ pilots from that base had either moved up to combat assignments or… when some general demanded a demonstration. Tibor, still in training, happened to be the most experienced pilot available, and was called on to exhibit skills the command wished he already possessed. He did okay until the landing part.
By way of remediation, he was given thirty days in the brig before climbing back in the cockpit. That, presumably, would teach him not to make any more bad landings!
Tibor was telling this story the day we met, while getting us stuck in traffic – sideways. In a town so small there was controversy about whether to install the county’s first traffic light, Tibor had accomplished the seemingly impossible, pulling out of a parking lot and somehow blocking both lanes of the main drag. Horns were honking from left and right and I was trying to crawl under the seat, as he finished his story with the triumphant words, “I should have been dead fifty years ago, I don’t give a s- -t.”
My dentist in that small town was Tibor’s back-to-back neighbor, and enjoyed regaling me with stories about him whenever I was in the chair. One winter morning the dentist looked out his bathroom window and saw Tibor in his undies, shoveling snow into a wheelbarrow and hauling it inside the house… Crazy? Oh sure, but even for guys like Tibor there’s always a reason. He could easily afford an indoor swimming pool, but was too cheap to buy a thermostat for the pool’s heater, and had inadvertently left it turned up while away for a couple weeks. When he returned the whole house was a steam bath, wallpaper peeling and all the rest.
Tibor flew from our field for several years, always displaying the most abysmal judgment. He took a friend up once, a power pilot who’d never been in a glider. Tibor got them out of range and was gliding back too slow in sink, when (really, I ain’t making this up) the guest realized they’d never make it and took over. Speeding way the heck up was all it took, and they did reach the field. He consistently landed his Cessna like a glider, but his glider like a Cessna. One day he stalled his glider so high and so short that pieces flew off from the impact before he coasted through those blue lights onto the end of the runway.
Then came the time Tibor wanted to see an airshow a few miles down the road and went there in his Cessna. He arrived a little late and the event had already begun, so of course the airport was officially closed, but he just flew in anyway. Representatives of the FAA were in attendance, no surprise, and that’s when Tibor was found to have never held an actual pilot certificate!
Just when we all were sighing relief that he’d not be terrorizing us anymore, we got a call — from Tibor. Seems he was ready now to throw down for some flight instruction, and I would have the honor of being his instructor. Oh joy.
First, congratulations go to 15-year old Robles Fisher who flew his first solo last weekend. Not yet old enough to drive, but plenty old enough to fly!
Looks like we’re in for a windy week this time around, mostly out of the west. If the forecast is accurate, Saturday could bring classic wave – crosswind permitting…