Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Formation Flying

I was out running the other day and three ducks happened to fly over on a glide path down to a small man-made lake. They were in formation, one in the lead of a small “V” and the other two on either side.

Later that day I saw a flock of pigeons swirling and swooping over a three-story building on a main thoroughfare in a commercial district. They were not in what you would call a formation, but they were somehow staying roughly together.

If the ducks were a team, the pigeons were a mob. Or maybe a high-energy crowd, to put it more charitably.

It was the ducks, though, that kept my interest. I did a little research on duck and bird formation flying and found out that formation flying – especially in a V – is more efficient for all the birds except the one in the lead. And flocks of birds alternate the lead role on long migrations so as to evenly distribute the fatigue of covering long distances.

Seeing those ducks the other day – they were in and out of my line of vision in two or three seconds – brought to mind one thrilling formation sight I will never forget.

The Navy Blue Angels were performing at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. A quick geography primer: Moffett is on the shore of the southernmost end of San Francisco Bay. Nearby are salt evaporation ponds separated by wide dikes or berms. There are trails on these berms that are open for hiking, running or biking. Some of them extend well out beyond the salt ponds into the bay itself.

I decided that the end of one of these berms jutting out into the bay would be a great place to watch the Blue Angels. And indeed it was. I was completely alone – not like the packed crowds at Moffett. Of course the Moffett runways were the center point of all the Blue Angels’ amazing aerobatics, but if you’ve ever seen them you know they cover a lot of real estate on their approaches and departures from the center point.

At one point late in the show the four who fly together formed up in a diamond formation and came soaring past me in a thunderous roar, banked for a right turn. They were going from my left to my right and passing directly in front of me. It was a spectacular sight.

What I hadn’t realized was that there were some ducks in the water right below where I was standing. Just at the moment when the Blue Angel formation was directly in front of me, the ducks must have been startled and burst up out of the water, wings beating furiously, water dripping from their feathers as they became airborne.

The ducks came up out of the water in formation! I really don’t think they planned it – but if they had they could not have executed it more perfectly. They flew up and to the right on a trajectory that perfectly mirrored the Blue Angels. So what I saw in one field of view was the Blue Angels in formation in the distance and the ducks in formation just a few yards away from me. It was a jaw-dropping, stunning, unbelievable sight.

I put these stock photos together just for the fun of it. Many is the time I have wished that I could have caught that scene for real with a camera, but it is just as well that I didn’t have one because I couldn’t have reacted fast enough. Anyway, I was so blown away I probably would have dropped my camera in the water.

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