Falling with the Falcon

Peregrines think simple thoughts: See food. Fly down. Go fast. Very fast.

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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.

An important effect of Frightful’s imprinting is that she regards Ken, in effect, as her mate. “Training techniques are all about feeding and breeding,” Franklin says. Frightful flies along with him on training jumps because she is following her instinct to fly with a mate, especially in pursuit of food.

Her trust in the Franklins is obvious in the easy, comfortable way they are able to handle her. When I warily offer my gloved fist as a perch, she becomes agitated. “Tilt your wrist a few degrees, until you feel her settle,” Suzanne instructs. “Feel her.”

A “haggard,” or mature falcon, Frightful has stiff, unyielding feathers. She is roughly the size of a loaf of bread, and with her wings tucked away and her feathers lying flat against her body, she feels as firm as a football. “Every feather on her body has a saw-toothed, jagged edge that tapers into nothingness,” Franklin points out. She can flex her feathers individually or in groups, an ability that lets her make tiny corrections at high velocity. Frightful flies with agility at almost any attitude. Occasionally she flips over in the middle of a 150 mph vertical dive and awaits her prey in midair as it helplessly falls into her talons, unable to pull out of its own dive so quickly or adeptly.

When Franklin and Frightful began freefalling together, they dropped at roughly 1,000 feet every six seconds, equivalent to about 120 mph. For a human in a skintight jumpsuit, spread-eagled with a parachute strapped on, that is terminal velocity—a natural speed limit that a falling object reaches when aerodynamic drag balances the acceleration due to gravity. During their first few dozen freefalls, Frightful learned to stoop at exactly Franklin’s terminal velocity. “She was [regulating] her speed to match mine,” Franklin recalls. Then Franklin began releasing lures that could fall faster, at about 195 mph. Frightful tucked into increasingly more streamlined shapes and caught up with the lures, no problem. So Franklin tried increasing his own speed, pulling in his arms and legs as experienced skydivers do. The falcon kept pace with her “mate,” and soon they were falling together at more than 240 mph. At that speed they can cover 100 yards faster than you can say “football field.”

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