Soaring With Seabirds
(Another reason why R/C is a good excuse to go to the beach)

One of the best ways I know of to relax and become one with nature is taking a radio-controlled sailplane to the beach and going slope soaring. For the uninitiated, this is simply flying using the seabreeze as your motor. Whenever the wind is blowing onto the shore, it hits the dunes, or even better a building such as a hotel or condominium, and has nowhere to go but up. Fortunately for birds and sailplane pilots, even a light breeze has enough of an upward component to balance, or even exceed, the slow, inexorable descent towards the ground that is required to maintain airspeed and keep flying. As long as there is sufficient wind blowing onshore, you can stay up as long as you want.

Slope soaring has lead me to some interesting observations, both about the air all around us and about the creatures that inhabit the coastline. As far as the wind goes, you would be surprised at how different the air a few feet above our heads is that the air we feel when we are confined to the ground. In front of a large condominium, the wind may seem quite light and variable. Stand on top of the dune, or way out in the water, and it may very well be blowing like crazy... what's happening is that the air is being pushed up and slowed down near the ground as it meets the dune, so on the beach it feels a lot weaker then it really is. And as evidenced by the sailplane or circling pelicans enjoying a free ride, a large area of the local atmosphere may be influenced by a building... the air may be going upward enough to provide lift many hundreds of feet in front of the building, and at almost double the height of the building. Which leads me to wonder about the effect this may have on the environment. With so many new things being learned about natural processes all the time, how do we know that the natural seabreeze doesn't serve some vital function to the health of our dunes? How do we know that downstream or upstream of these large obstructions we aren't causing irreparable damage to our fragile environment? We don't. Now I don't think that the wind profile of a building on the beach is as concerning as all the other environmental destruction inevitably involved with developments large and small, but I think the unseen effects it has on the air we all depend upon is symbolic of the larger truth that man affects nature in far more ways than we typically concern ourselves with in the name of development and progress.

A more visual and entertaining aspect of slope soaring is the reaction it gets from other citizens of the sky. I have found that different species of birds seem to have different attitudes towards the sailplane... and even within the same species, there are differences in how individuals react. First, let me describe the plane. It is a popular design called a Gentle Lady. It has a wingspan of 78 inches, is roughly 40 inches long, (and for the R/C pilots out there, I modified it with large spoilers to get down in a hurry and reduce floating on the landings). Like most all sailplanes, "Splat Cat" is pretty slender and graceful in appearance, and most of the time floats along slowly and gracefully. The covering, however, is not at all tame. On top it is yellow with big, bold, dark blue tiger stripes on all surfaces and red eyes near the nose. The bottom is uniform dark blue, with large yellow cat eyes under the wings. (Well, I had to put something under there!!) So despite the plane's easygoing nature, I suppose it looks like quite the predator... especially if you are a bird who has never seen such a bizarre brother-in-wings before!

Pelicans, those graceful kamikazes of the shoreline, have a wide variety of reactions. Sometimes, if I am flying lazy figure-eights above the front of the building, they will join in and relax in the same updrafts as my plane... of course, closely watching this unusual visitor. They seem to be happiest when you are at a lower altitude than they are. Sometimes, pelicans will catch sight of the plane as they head for the lift provided by the building, get spooked, and flap like crazy while diving in the opposite direction to escape this strange thing that's as big as they are. A purely panicked pelican is, predictably, pretty painfully preposterous looking. Ospreys, or fish hawks as some people know them, tend to be a bit more secure with their position in the food chain. They typically show a cautious curiosity about the plane. Once I had one follow me around the sky about 50 feet behind the plane. If I went left, he went left. If I climbed, he climbed. Then his mate showed up, and suddenly we had a three-ship formation! After a while they edged closer and closer. The more aggressive I got with the flying, the better they followed, as if not to let this newcomer outdo them on their own turf. After about 5 minutes, my curiosity got the better of me. I put the nose down to get up a little airspeed and they chased me, crying with that distinctive osprey sound. Then I yanked back on the elevator and did a loop. They must have thought the plane was on a bad acid trip or something as they flew off in a hurry, as if their very lives depended on how well they expressed their surprise. I felt bad for scaring them but after a while they did stop back by for another look... or was it an acknowledgment of skill??

Seagulls, meanwhile, are pretty much nonchalant about the whole thing. I think that to a seagull, anything that doesn't supply food and doesn't present a good target for dive-bombing isn't anything worth getting excited about, no matter how strange.

Fish crows are my favorites. These feisty little birds, like all crows, are by their nature quite curious about their surroundings and especially about things they haven't seen before. I once had a small flock of these guys - about seven or eight of them - fly all around me, chasing the plane merrily through the ether. It was rather like a bunch of school kids gathering around a companion after a trip to the office to ask them what happened. They look at the plane as if studying it intently enough could suddenly reveal to them the secret meaning of life. Fish crows on occasion act fairly defensive, once I got attacked in the same manner they would harangue any predator that wandered too near the nest. The regular type of crow, so far at least, has been a bit more wary of the plane, choosing to sit on the top edge of the condominium and caw-caw me into a flaming, crashing, high altitude death. (As one who once had a pet crow, Edgar Alan Crow by name, this quite surprised me. Edgar could talk and was very friendly and curious about everything. I guess the crow that I saw at the beach was an old codger who just couldn't be bothered to actually lift a wing at me.)

The creatures that are the least predictable are, predictably enough, the humans. Some folk, mostly older guys, are fascinated and like to ask lot of questions about how it works. The younger kids, meanwhile, think it's really cool and if given the chance, will almost universally say that they used to have one of those and that they crashed it. (One kid not only flew planes but rode on them as well!!! I offered him a ride, but unfortunately he suddenly heard his mom calling him for dinner.) The middle-aged folks tend to look on with some interest for a while, then go on about the business of sunbathing or walking or swimming. Couples walking on the beach usually look as if they are being interrupted from some deep, intellectual, life-changing discussion in order to crane their necks up at the plane. (Sorry folks, just flying through...) The surfers, as you might have guessed, tend to be so zoned out after a hard day of hanging ten that they don't even notice the person standing on the beach with a transmitter box in his hands and staring intently into the wild blue yonder. Or they might look for a while and go back to the waves. And since Florida is so famous for its pretty girls in teeny bikinis, I should include them. They tend to look on with some curiosity but beyond that I don't know. If they're really cute I usually get so tied up with trying to get the plane out of an unusual attitude (caused by not paying attention to what I'm doing) that I don't get to watch more than the first couple of moments after they notice what's going on. After that I'm usually scared into paying attention to the plane for a while. Maybe I should build an auto-pilot.

Slope-Soaring Tutorial
Another Bird Story: The Bald Eagle of Doom
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