Falling with the Falcon
Peregrines think simple thoughts: See food. Fly down. Go fast. Very fast.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, March 2005
(Page 2 of 4)
It’s an improbable and wonderful sight to witness Franklin release Frightful into the slipstream of a Cessna 172 at 17,000 feet above sea level. She stabilizes immediately into level flight and matches the speed of the airplane. She flies just off the wingtip, keeping her sharp eye on Franklin, inside the airplane, as he prepares to dive out the door. Then he leaps, and they fall together for more than two miles, along with a lure that Franklin drops during the descent to simulate prey.
Franklin’s team verified Frightful’s dive velocities with measurements from altimeters worn by videographer Kent and Franklin himself as they plummeted alongside the bird. A fourth altimeter was packed into the lure, and all four altimeters were compared after each jump. The team spent a couple of months working out these techniques and training Frightful, then another seven weeks shooting the film, which aired on the National Geographic Explorer program in 2002 and was nominated for an Emmy award. Frightful also stars in Birds of Prey, a yet-to-be-released IMAX film produced by Roy Disney.
But while Franklin and his raptor have caught the attention of the entertainment world, aeronautical engineers and other technical types have largely ignored them. Jim Crowder, a Boeing engineer and leading authority on airflow dynamics who died last year, was one of the few aerospace professionals who paid attention. Crowder lamented the aviation industry’s lack of interest in bird flight, particularly peregrine flight. In June 2000, I asked him whether falcons had anything to teach aeronautical engineers. “The easy answer, if talking about Boeing-type aviation, is ‘no,’ ” he replied by e-mail. “Our [Boeing’s] position is that aviation is a mature business, and that the discoveries waiting to be identified are probably not worth looking for. Someone would have found them by now.”
Crowder thought this corporate indifference, or perhaps arrogance, was misguided. “Personally, I am convinced that birds do all kinds of things that are unknown and potentially worth finding out about,” he said. “I have spent my entire career inventing and innovating equipment and testing methods. All too frequently I am asked, ‘What good is it?’ My usual answer is ‘Nothing at all unless you think about it.’ ”
Franklin has been watching and thinking about falcons for most of his life. At age 12 he captured and began training a red-tail hawk. He’d take the bird to his father’s 66-acre airport adjacent to Friday Harbor (see “The People and Planes of Friday Harbor,” Apr./May 2004), where it caught rabbits and small rodents. Falconry became a lifelong avocation, and eventually Franklin sought a way to combine it with his career in aviation. Then he got Frightful from a falcon breeder in Spokane, and knew he had the bird he’d been dreaming about.
On the ground, Franklin looks like Sam Shepard on a bad hair day, as though all those skydives have permanently startled him. He roams his 14-acre farm like a raptor. Shoulders still and head thrust forward, he looks like he’s hunting up a meal. In the sky, he is nearly as comfortable as Frightful. At 21, he was the youngest pilot then working for a U.S. commercial airline. He has logged more than 17,000 hours in the cockpits of just about every type of civilian aircraft currently flying, including 747s and MD-11s for Flying Tiger Airlines and FedEx. Arrayed around his farmhouse and sheds are two Cessnas, a Robinson R22 helicopter, and two ultralights, along with the parachutes he uses when diving alongside Frightful.
“Frightful got her name because she is the closest thing to a wild falcon that I’ve ever trained,” Franklin says, yet within two days of hatching she was swept in to the center of the family, to the point where she sometimes acts as if Ken and Suzanne’s king-size bed is her nest, preferring to sleep there instead of in her aviary. She often spends hours perched on a ledge above the kitchen counter. She also can be raucous, cacking and flapping her wings when stimulated or displeased, as when a visitor steps out suddenly from behind her.
Frightful became “imprinted,” or bonded, to Franklin through an incremental training regime, which he devised with Suzanne. The training eventually led to side-by-side skydives. Suzanne, who retains the physique and pluck of a collegiate swimmer, is also a master falconer and ornithologist. She would hold the hooded bird while Ken started flying low and slow in an ultralight over the grass landing strip on his property. When Ken, carrying a lure with fresh quail meat, passed by in the ultralight, Suzanne would pull off the hood and release the falcon. Frightful unhesitatingly chased the ultralight in pursuit of the lure. From there it was a natural progression for Ken to take Frightful up in his Cessna, with his father Roy at the controls.