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 4 of 4)
Although they arrived at this conclusion independently from aeronautical engineers, the falconers are hardly alone in suggesting it. Nearly 20 years ago, scientists at 3M developed an adhesive film with a micro-structured texture that, when applied to the surfaces of an aircraft wing, will reduce drag, resulting in greater fuel efficiency. Even a one percent reduction in fuel use for a wide-body jet saves about $100,000 in fuel for each aircraft annually, according to 3M’s Web site.
Not everyone agrees that Franklin’s research tells us much about the behavior of wild peregrines. Some falcon experts have called his studies artificial, because freefalling from 17,000 feet is unnatural behavior for falcons, who normally stay below 14,000 feet. Franklin says the only reason he goes so high is to get more time for his observations, and that doing so doesn’t make much difference to the bird. “Falcons can accelerate from 100 mph to 200-plus mph in eight seconds in pursuit of prey,” he says. “They don’t need that vertical space to accelerate. But they often ride thermals up to cloud base, getting a free ride up the column of air, checking out everything in the airspace for a meal. They soar at altitude, practically invisible, waiting for prey—then they stoop. To say that stooping from 14,000-plus feet is not normal for a falcon is like observing a Ferrari on a crowded freeway doing 55 mph and assuming that’s all they can do.”
Ken and Suzanne Franklin would love to see their falcon studies contribute to even modest improvements in aircraft efficiency. And even though aerospace companies are hardly beating their door down, Franklin takes every opportunity to deliver his message. Last September, he addressed a meeting for Boeing engineers and the British Royal Society of Aeronautical Engineers at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, and he regularly talks to groups of pilots and birders.
In the meantime, he and Frightful continue their high-dive act. Looking each other in the eye while falling at 242 mph, they share a knowledge and a bond that few people, let alone people and animals, could ever know.