Spring, which started on Saturday, took a long time coming this year. To celebrate, here’s a story told to me by Karl Jensen, a retired SAA captain and a leading light in the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Karl’s flying hours add up to the equivalent of more than three years airborne.
His story concerns another popular figure in the flying world – Jim Davis, a doyen of flight instructors. In Karl’s words:
Many years back Jim opened Cape Flying Services at George Airport. He had a single office with a crew room attached.
Swallows built a mud nest above the door and Jim installed a shelf below the nest to catch the droppings.
One spring morning he found a baby swallow on the ground outside door and gently picked it up and placed it on the shelf.
Mother swallow was circling around voicing her worries. Next morning the awkward fledgling was back, helpless, on the floor.
Being a flying instructor Jim decided he had better teach this little swallow to fly. He put it on his finger and moved it up and down so it had to flap.
Little by little, it gained confidence and strength and Jim got to the stage where he would suddenly pull his finger away and the reluctant fledgling would flap to the ground.
But daily the flights grew longer.
The bird’s parents helped by getting upwind of Jim and dangling tasty insects while calling encouragement. After about a week the bird flew from Jim’s hand, did a circuit and landed back on his finger.
Late in the autumn it migrated northward for the winter with its family.
But came spring and the swallows were back. As they circled one singled itself out – and landed on Jim’s finger.
As Karl says: “Not many instructors can claim they taught a swallow the art of aviation.”
SWIFTS AND SWALLOWS
Talking of migratory birds let me tell you of the common swift, a non-breeding SA migrant that arrives from Europe weeks after the various swallows and returns weeks ahead of them.
You can tell a swift from a swallow – it has no colour; has long, narrow, scimitar-shaped wings and, in flight, it frequently flutters.
Its over-eagerness to leave SA stems from it being the most aerial of all birds and, like a fish, it has to perpetually swim in the ocean of the sky feeding on aerial plankton.
This “plankton” is made up of tiny creatures including even spiders found floating kilometres up.
In autumn the composition of aerial plankton changes from being mostly soft-bodied insects to hard-bodied – beetles and such – which are nutritionally unrewarding. The swift, which cannot land and cannot perch, needs all the nutrition it can get for its 10 000km nonstop flight north.
Derek Bromhall of Oxford University found that when young swifts leave their nests in Oxford’s Library Tower, they never again land. They float about, day and night, hawking insects. They even sleep on the wing. In Europe’s autumn they fly south and, on reaching our end of the world, they never land.
If they are beaten to the ground in a hail storm they perish unless somebody picks them up and re-launches them.
They can remain airborne from the time they leave their nest, right through their first year and, if they fail to find a mate, right through their second year.
A bit like Karl Jensen they can even spend three years in the air, ceaselessly gliding, fluttering and sleeping in the sky. They mate on the wing and collect all their food that way too. Nesting material? They collect it all in the air.