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Soaring with Pelicans

by Mike Havener


It was 103 degrees on the Lake Elsinore flood plain at about 3:30. I had just landed after playing around in some ridge lift on the other side of the radio towers. The wind had died down, so it wasn't what I had hoped for, mostly 0 -100 fpm. So there I was, sitting on the runway, watching the Pawnee on base leg when I noticed that the shear line looked like it was starting to kick up. That's all the encouragement I needed to turn the club's 1-26 (#231) around and climb back in the cockpit.

After releasing in lift, it became apparent that not only was the shear line working, but the other club gliders had noticed it as well. We were all enjoying the now 74 degree temperature at 4500 msl and could fly all the way to Palm Springs if we had wanted to (too bad we were in the club ships).

I started out towards Canyon Lake when I noticed a flock of birds circling out in front of me. After 3 turns, they had climbed about 300 feet, while I stayed at the same altitude. Seeing as they had been doing this stuff all their life, figured I would join them to see what they had found. As I came up on the birds I saw it was a flock of 20-25 fresh water pelicans. They had found some 800 fpm lift out here in the middle of the lake. They moved off to the opposite side of the thermal, and we circled for a few minutes until we reached 6500 msl. I figured that would get me on my way, and bid my friends adieu.

Again, I pointed the nose east and started porpoising in the lift generated by the shear. When the vario jumped to 800, I pulled back on the stick and looked over my right shoulder as I started to circle. WHAT THE HECK IS THAT. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something very big and white. Thinking I was about to become a bug splat on somebody's windshield, the next thought I had was "What's that sound?". That's when I realized that the pelicans had followed me (maybe they weren't as smart as I thought).

The pelicans joined me in this thermal as well, all of us circling the same direction (at least they know that rule). At one point, they actually flew around the sailplane, like I was one of the flock. Some were within 5 feet of the canopy. It was like I was their long lost brother or something. I was so close that at times I could hear the rustle of their feathers in the wind.

For the next 45 minutes, they would follow me, then I would follow them. I've flown with hawks, buzzards and eagles, all of which are great experiences. They were different though. Those other birds would look at you, maybe even tolerate your presence in their sky for a period of time. These pelicans actually seemed to enjoy flying with this big, yellow, metal cousin.

It was discouraging to see that the clock had ticked down, and I had to get back so that Dave could have his turn with the ship. As I started back, I noticed that they were still following me. Not wanting to bring a bunch of birds with me into the traffic pattern, I reluctantly sped up to 80 mph to put some distance between us. After landing, I could see "my" pelicans still circling over the lake, begging me to come back and play some more. Maybe another day.