Soaring has been very special to me and the sport always comes up with some unexpected surprises. Today would be no different.
October in Tennessee means the annual Oktoberfest Glider Celebration at the famous Chilhowee Gliderport (92A, Benton, TN) hosted by my friends, world soaring champion, Sarah Arnold, and her husband Jason. I was flying my trusty old 1956 Schweitzer 1-26 glider, old “057”, while I searched for a thermal to gain some altitude or else I would be forced to land back at the field. All of a sudden, something white and black caught my eye going by underneath me and I immediately turned to follow it. Could it be? YES! I spotted a large soaring bird turning in a circle just ahead of me now and I latched onto him and got very close.
Glider pilots always look for soaring birds because they can find thermals better than any human. But this guy was something special! It was a large bald eagle and I just could not believe he was letting me share the thermal with him. He did not seem to fear my presence and he just found more and more lift. I clung to his tail and followed him like a shadow.
Soon we gained about 2,500 feet, circling and climbing very rapidly at a rate of more than 500 feet per minute. He (I decided he was a male) was well aware of me behind him and we both seemed to be flying at the same speed of 40-45 mph. I could get very close to him and sometimes was only 15 or 20 feet away. He never dove away or tried to avoid me. After several minutes, he just turned west and flew away across the valley. It was clear who was in charge here. No, I did not get his tail number.
What a thrill it was to find one of these beautiful masters of the air. To share the sky with him was just an experience that only a glider pilot will ever have and a very rare one at that! I have been flying gliders for 45 years and a pilot for 66 years and have been all over the world and experienced many different places, weather and cultures. As a United States Air Force fighter pilot, veteran of the Vietnam War, and a commercial airline pilot, I have logged over 27,000 hours of flying time. But these few minutes had to be one of my most memorable and unique moments. I’ve seen eagles in the air before and many other soaring birds but never have I shared the air with one as close as this.
I will be 81 years old this week and this was a birthday gift that I neither expected nor even dreamed of. You often hear the saying that you should “Soar like an Eagle.” And now I can say “I Soared WITH an Eagle”.