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Seagulls: A Study in the Magic of Flight

Apr 25, 2008
From the first few days when humans watched birds fly, we have been in awe of their beauty and functionality. With effortless ease, they take a few steps, flap their mighty wings, and launch skyward in a full STOL takeoff that would make a Maule seem like a DC-10 cargo ship trying to plunder its way into the sky.

While on a photo mission for my ad agency, I spent a weekend over on the Oregon coast at Lincoln City, which was getting pounded with gusts to 60 mph on it's way to a walloping with winds as high as 129 mph at Bay City. But while the wind was blowing, I came across a huge parking lot full of seagulls that were having a ball in those gusts. As I watched their antics, they taught me a great deal about the relationship between aircraft and birds.

One by one, the gulls would just flap their wings, propelling them up gracefully into the wind. At about three feet over my head, they would just hover, not flapping their wings, but letting the wind provide all the lift they needed to stay basically in one place. After that gull was done with his/her kite imitation, another would launch up into the gusts coming off the beach and play the hover game.

I had my newest camera with me, a Canon 40D, with a 200mm prime lens out front. With the drive set to max of about six frames per second, and the autofocus set to continuous (a sports mode), I was able to run all over the lot, chasing hovering seagulls. After 458 images shot, I came back to my hotel and discovered some amazing things about birds. These mega-closeups of gulls in hover mode showed me the anatomy of a bird like I had never seen. If you refer to the photo that accompanies this article, you will see the following five things:

1. The trailing edge of the gull's wing stretches out substantially to form a very large "flap" which provides additional lift for slow flight. This was confirmed on other shots of the gulls in fast flight, when these "flap" feathers were retracted.

2. Complimenting the "flaps" are what appear to be "spoilers" on the wing's leading edge. When you study the complete design of this gull's wing, it resembles a jetliner's wing in its "dirty" landing configuration. I find the gull's wings to be stunning works of art.

3. In slow flight, the gulls would flare their tail feathers wide, to create a sort of "horizontal stabilizer" to give the southbound end of the northbound bird extra lift. In close with my telephoto lens, I was amazed watching them steer by flexing these aft feathers ever so slightly, just enough to keep their beak aimed directly into the wind.

4. In hovering mode, the gulls would drop their retractable "gear" to help steer and stabilize their fuselage. As the gusts increased, the "gear" would come down to dirty up their airframe...and when the speed of the gusts dropped, the gull would retract their feet to clean up and eliminate any excess drag. Amazing.

5. The gulls kept their aerodynamic beak aimed PRECISELY into the wind. They would hint at their next movement ever so slightly when they would aim that beak left or right just before peeling off in either direction to pull out of the hover.

After a few seconds of hovering, each gull would crank into a hard left or right one-eighty, suck in their flaps and spoilers, yank up those retractable feet, and blast off downwind, picking up speed like they were shot from a cannon. All the time, I imagine they were smiling.

I have never studied birds up close like this, in their element. This seashore parking lot was like a little avian GA airport, the kind where a bunch of guys and gals in cloth airplanes have a ball playing together with the wind. I believe I might have seen a few of the seagulls grilling Brats, while others were drinking Budweisers during a heated discussion about whether it's best to run lean or rich of beak.

When you really look at birds up close in stop-action, they do have many similarities to the flying machines we fly. They have wings, we have wings. They have a tail, we have a tail. They have a beak, we have GPS.

We win.
About the Author
Author Dan Pimentel is a private pilot, writer, photographer and owner of an
advertising agency
that specializes in ad campaign development for national aviation clients . He also blogs about aviation issues at his blog, World of Flying.
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