It’s always unwise to chase migrating birds, as they’re on a tight budget and can’t afford to waste time or energy breaking formation to run from us. Far better from every perspective to simply follow along at a respectful distance, let them navigate, and enjoy the show. Also, pilots should know to never fly directly under birds of any species, because their first defensive instinct is to dive.  While these courtesies are easy enough to observe in most cases, sometimes it’s tempting to rationalize an exception…

I was giving a double ride here at Crystal one day, happy couple squoze in back, when we sighted a squadron of pelicans soaring along their migratory route. (Yes, squadron is the collective noun for pelicans.) These huge water birds soar across our section of the Mojave each year, heading NW in spring and SE in autumn, seldom flapping a wing as they mark lines of lift along the way.  Glistening white with black tips, they have a span of nearly 10 feet, and can weigh over 20 pounds. Of all the marvels I’ve witnessed in the sky, soaring near a hundred of these creatures may be the most entrancing.

Off to the side of this group we found one individual pelican flying alone, and wanted a better look. I tried to overtake it but was unable to stay up level, so as we drew close I cracked spoilers to allow plenty of room below. Twenty feet ought to be enough, I thought.

White feathers seemed to fill the sky ahead – and then we saw just how maneuverable even a giant bird can be. In half a second the pelican folded its wings, rolled inverted, and then spread them again as it dove toward us. It seemed for a moment we’d have pelican draped all over our nose and leading edges, but before I could respond in any way it had shot from above to below, so viscerally close we actually felt its tail brush our wheel!

Horrified that the bird may have been injured, I snapped a turn to see. Apparently it learned something from this episode too, as we next saw it flapping hard to form back up with its mates and regain the security of numbers. If I knew how to squawk pelican I’d have begged forgiveness, instead felt blessed just to fall away in shame.

Soaring with birds is a sacred privilege and we need to remember that it’s their sky, not ours. To them we’re an anomaly, intruders at best. We must be careful not to act as invaders.


We were eighty miles from home, Pedro at the controls and me doing something in the aft cockpit, eyes down. He’d been running straight along a shearline for several minutes and then abruptly began to circle. I knew where we were within a few miles without looking, but hadn’t expected him to stop until we reached Boomer Ridge. It was unusually hazy that day with tall clouds casting wide shadows on a landscape I’d always seen brightly lit. Nothing was recognizable! Turning my head against the direction of our circle intensified disorientation, and unreasoned anxiety prompted a sudden wave of nausea.

Eventually there’s a first time, pardon the cliché, for even this.

I drew one deep breath and asked Pedro to go straight for a moment, on any heading. Soon, through beads of perspiration I found a familiar crossroads and CLICK, like the turning of a lock, simple recognition transformed cold sweat into cool refreshment, and all was well again.

What amazed me was how quickly poking only one toe through the fragile deck of a mental footbridge felt like I was falling into the river – and then how little it took to restore a vital confidence that was so easily challenged.

So… Ever notice how right it feels to keep your off hand on some firm point in the cockpit, especially when you turn your head? We all do it unconsciously. It’s a natural instinct to maintain orientation, like our cousins do in trees. Same thing at the other end of the arm too, up here where converging strands of nerve tissue form a giant fatty cyst that expands to fill the cranium. Without some known reference to proceed from and potentially retreat to, rational faith in our own knowledge and perception can instantly vanish exactly when we need it most. And that must tell us something…

What does it tell us?  We may about to find out…



A smart circle is one where, for example, you gain enough height in thirty seconds to glide for several minutes.  Another is the mile-wide exploratory turn in wave, drifting downwind into stronger lift while exploring laterally for even more.  Or how about a quick circle just before entering the landing pattern to check for unannounced traffic?  That’s pretty smart too.

Dumb circles?  We see them all the time.  Such as circling where you thought there might be lift even when there’s no actual evidence;  circling where there was lift, long after either you lost it or it climbed away and left you; circling in wave when that’s certain to drift you downwind of the good stuff into certain trouble.  And oh yes, circling and staring at your panel while other pilots are flying by you on their downwind legs.

Fact is, there are zillions more dumb things we can do than smart things, in the air as on the ground.  Our job is to sort out these options and leave at least some of the dumb ones undone!


Say you’re up, soaring locally with no special plan except to enjoy it and stay safe.  Still, as in ‘real’ life, soaring is all about decisions. Even deciding not to decide is…  you get it.  One decision that’s yours to make at any point is, would you rather have an excellent flight or a mediocre one?  Your choice.

For a mediocre flight just keep doing what you always have, maybe bring music, some favorite food or other distraction.  It’s easy.  But that will be less satisfying and for many reasons less safe than pursuing excellence.

If you prefer excellence, simply challenge yourself.  Instead of another hour in the house thermal just like last week, pick some uncertain goal such as getting to a far edge of the neighborhood and back, or doing so more quickly.  Not something easy, something near the limits of your capability.  The point is not to gain a victory, it’s to try hard, learn a lot, and and earn more than a minimum of personal satisfaction.  If success were defined by avoiding failure, playing checkers with two-year olds would demonstrate your superiority.  Success that comes from pursuing excellence is at your fingertips every moment, leading to greater pleasures and safety on every subsequent flight.   No one could wish for more.