Flying with Pasipo

A hang-glider pilot and his trained hawk soared above the mountains of Tanzania
May 02, 1993

Looking hack on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air.
Out of Africa

A vision of violence haunts me. Gazing down the mountain slope, I remember yet again the dark spectacle of my friend's being tossed about like a dinghy in a gale, only a hundred yards off the dirt runway in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania, utterly out of control. An experienced hang-glider pilot, she could do nothing but hold on and ride it out. It—what exactly was it? Some sort of turbulence.

"A washing machine!" Chanel Coker's voice triggered the mike on her radio. "This is no ordinary updraft!" Nose up...tail up...starboard wingtip pointing toward earth...then heaven.... The 70-pound aluminum and Dacron ship heaved and yawed in a pilot's nightmare. And then, abruptly, the pocket of turbulence released her.

"I'm heading out to land," Chanel said, her voice jagged but tinged with relief. She turned away from the mountains and headed toward the flat savanna.

A few seconds later God suddenly turned the washing machine back on. Again Chanel lost altitude and was pitched about at such radical angles that I felt certain she would "luck and tumble," that the hang glider would fold up or flip upside down and spin to earth. But the violence ceased as quickly as it had started. Chanel said nothing as she turned the glider back toward the savanna, gliding again toward the safety of the landing zone in a field far below.

"Bloody awful!" she screamed when still another cycle of the washing machine started. The turbulence lasted only a minute, but when it had ended, she was too low over the foothills at the base of the mountains to make it to the landing zone. From the launch site I watched as the parachute burst open directly in front of the hang glider and brought it down behind a ridge.

I force the memory of Chanel's flight from my mind, and as if the beauty of the place could still my pounding heart, I ponder the sheer escarpment of the Usambara Mountains. Gray cliffs festooned with palms and the luxuriant crowns of rain-forest trees drop 3,000 feet to arid foothills. My aerie is set on a peninsula that protrudes like a finger 300 yards from the vertical mountain walls, then falls suddenly to the savanna. My house, a one-room stone studio, sits on a rock outcropping at the tip. Thirty feet behind the house stands a stone bird mews, sunk like a bunker into the mountainside. A hundred yards farther back and a hundred feet higher, in a banana grove by the edge of a field, Georgi Petro, my assistant, lives in a round adobe hut with a conical roof of banana-leaf thatch. With a small army of villagers, I built the entire compound, encircled by a wattle-pole fence, in five months for $3,000.

I first came to Tanzania in 1988 on a Rotary International scholarship. I was about to begin work on a masters in African literature at the University of Dar es Salaam, in the country's capital, when I learned the course work wasn't scheduled to begin until the following year. I also discovered that I wasn't going to be able to launch a hang glider off Mount Kilimanjaro—something for which I had been preparing during several months in California—because the national park service requires a $20,000 deposit in case a search-and-rescue mission becomes necessary. So I left the capital, headed for the Usambara Mountains and spent time hang gliding there instead. A short time later, while on safari on the Serengeti Plain, I ended up in a hospital after an acute flare-up of the stomach ulcer I had developed while learning to fly a hang glider. It was in the hospital that I conceived of writing a book about melding the ancient art of falconry with the New Age sport of hang gliding. Now here I stand, on the edge of the 50-foot runway, ready to take off.

I pull on my helmet, and I secure the hang strap of the cocoon harness and the Kevlar parachute sling with a locking carabiner to the keel of the ship. With my shoulders pushed into the apex of the aluminum A-frame, I stand, lifting the ship into the wind. At 10 knots the head wind hoists the glider, beckoning it into the sky, and I pull alternately against the two down tubes, leveling the wing.

"Georgi!" I yell above the wind. "Ready?"

"Yeah, bwana." Georgi stands to the side, a short, stocky 21-year-old with an augur buzzard on his gloved left fist. The buzzard's four-foot wings are outstretched in the wind. She is a handsome raptor, a bird of prey, with auburn wings and an auburn-speckled breast. Augurs, named after the ancient Roman religious officials who sometimes predicted the future by the flight of birds, are the most common raptors in Africa.

Georgi says, "Pasipo wants to fly."

Georgi and I found her in a treetop nest when she was two weeks old and resembled a downy toad. I named her Pasipo, Swahili for "loneliness," a nod to her alien life among humans. We raised her, feeding her mice, chicks and lean beef, and she quickly grew to be a foot and a half tall, her coat of down giving way to a second, darker downy coat and then to white and auburn feathers. She "imprinted," as the biologists say, and came to think of us as her parents and of the aerie as her home.

As soon as she could stand, Pasipo began to eat off my gloved fist. After a month, when her quills were no longer blue but hard and white, she began to hop about, trying out her wings. A few days later, with a short leash clipped to her jesses—the leather thongs we had placed on both her legs—Pasipo was flying 10 feet from a perch to the glove as Georgi or I stood by the hang glider dangling a dead chick. We were conditioning her to the sight of the yellow-and-hot-pink glider, which we hoped Pasipo would come to think of as her dining room. After another week Pasipo, now on a long leash, was winging a hundred yards across the field on top of the peninsula and touching down lightly on the glove.

The pleasure of a trained hawk, a feathered friend, coming when you call is immense, for the training process is painstaking. Often a novice falconer makes mistakes that take months to correct. Hunger is a raptor's only source of motivation, and there is a fine line between persuasive hunger and starvation. You love and nurture the hawk as if she were your child, and you live in the fear that you will kill her. Georgi and I had been absolute beginners at the sport, working out of several books, and we had made all of the classic errors with our first four birds. One augur was frozen at 15 feet; for months she simply refused to fly any farther.

But Pasipo's training progressed without any setbacks. When she crossed the field daily on clumsy fledgling wings, Georgi and I were overwhelmed with a joy akin to that of parents watching a child toddle across the living room. Still, the joy of Pasipo's first flights was met with the fear of losing her, for at six weeks of age it became time to "hack" her. Hacking is the falconer's term for the period when a nestling is allowed to fly free in order to gain skills as a flier and hunter. Ideally, several nestlings are hacked at the same time because the group will call back the most daring of the youngsters when it strays far from home. Still, we had no choice with Pasipo; she had to learn to hunt on her own, or one day, when I was flying with her far from the promontory, she might become lost and starve to death.

Reluctantly we clipped the jesses from her legs and left her on her perch. It took her several hours to understand her freedom. Finally she flew up to the highest point on the promontory and perched on a flame tree, which was leafless but covered in red blooms, and she stayed there until dark.

The next morning she was gone. Georgi and I walked fretfully through the mountains, calling her. Late in the afternoon she came swooping out of the blue, screaming from hunger. I cut a long piece of steak, pulled on the glove and ran out to her. She was sitting on the thatched roof of the bird mews and dived down to the glove, where she ate greedily. She then winged up to the flame tree.

During the next week Pasipo would stay away all morning but return in the evenings to feed. When she was gone for two days in a row, we knew that she had made her own kill. Anxiously we awaited her arrival. On the evening of the third day, when she came to Georgi's fist to feed, we cuffed her legs with jesses and put her in the mews. The next day we gave her no food, and the following day we flew her on the long leash across the field to eat by the hang glider. For several days we followed this routine and then flew her for a week with no leash. She was fat and happy again in her invisible gilded cage.

"Unafikilia kwa Chanel?" In Swahili, Georgi asks if I am thinking about Chanel's flight. "Think about Pasipo," he says. "This is the big day. You're going to fly together!"

"Sawa, bwana," I tell him. "O.K." Then I whisper to myself, "Wingtips level; angle of attack copying the slope of the ground."

I run down the sloping runway. The head wind deflecting off the promontory sucks up the glider, lifting it in a nearly vertical line. The fear that always mounts in me before takeoff falls away. I place my feet in the tail of the harness and zip the cocoon closed.

I bank the ship and sail along the ridge of the mountains, climbing gradually in the narrow band of ridge lift. The variometer on the control bar chirps steadily. I glance at the needle on the little box: The ridge lift is rising 200 feet per minute—a nice, gentle current. At the end of the promontory, the variometer falls silent as the lift disappears. I swing the ship through a U-turn and head back. Four hundred feet over the launch site, I maintain altitude, turning slowly through a series of figure eights.

Georgi and Pasipo are below me. They gaze upward, and Georgi yells, the sound carrying clearly, "Drop the lure!"

From a pouch on the side of the cocoon, I pull out a piece of steak and drop it. A string, tied to the control bar, stops it three feet below. Georgi throws Pasipo up off his fist. The head wind heaves the raptor backward a foot until she rights herself and rises in the ridge lift. Much more aerodynamic than a hang glider, the augur buzzard sweeps up rapidly through the current, heading for the flame tree.

"Pasipo!" I shout, reaching down and shaking the lure. "Pasipo!"

She passes over the flame tree, as if she can't hear me, and keeps flying, over the field and on toward the high peaks.

"Bloody buzzard," I mutter as I throw my weight hard to starboard, whipping the ship through a tight turn, giving chase. Five hundred feet above the peninsula, the ridge lift vanishes, and I am too low to follow Pasipo. With my glide ratio of 10 feet forward for every foot I drop, if I find no more lift, I will sink slowly for a mile into the trees and the folding ridges of the Usambaras. I scan the sky without sighting Pasipo and head back to the aerie. Passing Georgi, I shout down, "She flew off!"

Over the triangular rock face that drops 3,000 feet to the savanna below, the glider rocks and creaks, penetrating the veil of sinking air that surrounds a strong updraft. The variometer chirps rapidly. The needle reads 1,000 feet per minute. Straight up. The wide expanse of dark rock absorbs solar radiation, making the air next to it much warmer. By midday the rock face regularly generates a thermal column, a sort of slow-motion tornado, or gyre—what the poet W.B. Yeats referred to when he wrote, "Turning and turning in a widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer." Turning in the gyre, I spiral ever higher for five minutes until the thermal dissipates, 2,500 feet over the aerie.

The variometer begins to moan like a sick cow; it's the sink alarm. The gauge registers an 800-foot-per-minute down-draft. I swing the ship around and glide back toward the aerie. As I come in over the peninsula, I see Pasipo perched high in the Ethiopian flame tree. I dangle the lure and dive down toward the flame tree.

Pasipo rows her wings as she climbs toward me. I pass 50 feet above her, and she changes direction, chasing me now. I cut a meandering line, swinging my weight from side to side in the glider, pretending a SAM is in pursuit. Over the rock face at the end of the promontory, Pasipo closes in and flips upside down, presenting the spotless white undersides of her wings as her talons grasp for the steak. I jerk the lure from her reach and stash the steak in the pocket of the cocoon.

The ship bounces into the thermal, which is rising off the dark face of the rock. Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon follows the falconer. Soon Pasipo overtakes me, circling past. The falconer follows the falcon for a full five minutes, the ship banked in a steep angle as I struggle to remain in the thermal's core, the area of its strongest lift.

Two thousand feet over our aerie, I am wondering where Pasipo will go when she tops out, while I, in the argot of sky sailors, "go over the falls," the cascading downdraft that encircles the thermal. Suddenly the glider is spit out of the gyre. My stomach at first feels as though it is crushing my lungs in a sickening, weightless sensation as the ship sideslips in a frighteningly long three-second free fall. My hand fondles the parachute's rip cord. Don't panic, I think. Turn out of it. I simultaneously swing my body to the low side of the glider and pull in the control bar to accelerate the lower wingtip out of the stall. The glider shudders and levels.

Pasipo is arcing down toward the aerie. I swoop after her, yelling, but she dives on. Five hundred feet off the deck we enter the gentle ridge lift, the upper boundary of the prevailing southerly that is deflected up off the peninsula. Pasipo turns into the wind and parks, perfectly still, in the steady flow.

I slow down and sail by, dangling the lure and calling her name. Again she pursues, catching me quickly and flipping over in an attempt to grab the lure. I yank the string away. She lets loose a long wail of hunger, shooting past me. I stuff the steak away but pull a small piece, a reward, from another pocket. She circles in, looking for the lure, and I throw the reward to her. As it flies over her head, she tucks her wings into her sides and dives at more than 100 mph, snagging the meat and swooping upward. She hovers in the ridge lift, devours the morsel and rows back toward me.

Banking the ship back and forth, I again fly in a serpentine path, with Pasipo matching every turn. She circles in front of the glider and sails past just a few feet in front of my face. I can see her deep brown eyes as she screams at me, demanding her supper. I bank away from her, but as I come out of the U-turn, she passes close by, her right wingtip nearly grazing my nose. Worried that she might hit the front wires of the glider in another pass, I toss more beef to her in a long are. Pasipo catches it just as it starts to descend. She parks in the ridge lift and swallows her reward as I run down the ridge line, heading for the thermal generator at the end of the peninsula.

Climbing in the gyre, I watch Pasipo, 300 feet below, race down the ridge and enter the elevator shaft. She spirals up at twice my speed, catching me at the top, where the lift dissipates, 2,000 feet over the aerie. She follows the glider toward the savanna while I contemplate making a run for a dormant volcano five miles out.

Pasipo screams, but the sound is different from her demands for food. I glance over at her, 60 feet off the port tip. Two augur buzzards are diving at full speed out of the clouds, their wings tucked to their sides, their talons thrust forward. As they near, I can see that their plumage is mature, their wings no longer auburn but slate gray, their short tails no longer chestnut but a vivid orange. In the distance another augur circles.

God help us, I think. It's the resident augurs. Pasipo's sister is waiting overhead while her parents, unable to recognize the child who was stolen from their nest eight weeks ago, are coming to drive her out of their territory. The air is full of screaming buzzards. They strafe Pasipo. The large mother smacks her on the head and swoops upward after the dive to reposition herself for another strike. As the smaller father closes in, Pasipo flips upside down to block his blow with her own talons.

"Pasipo!" I cry, swinging my weight hard to port and gliding in with the idea of a rescue. "Get under me!"

The mother strafes again. Pasipo flips to meet the blow, then dives away, heading for the aerie, cutting from side to side with her parents in pursuit.

I put the sluggish hang glider in a full dive and lag behind, wishing in my fury that I had a shotgun. My ship shudders and groans. The airspeed indicator reads 50 mph, 10 above the recommended top speed for the glider. Far below, the raptors form a chaos of flipping, swooping buzzards. At 60 mph the ship oscillates out of control, banking with the starboard tip aiming toward earth, then with the port tip pointing earthward, back and forth like a skateboard riding the sides of a tunnel. I ease off on the speed, but the ship oscillates with undiminished velocity.

Concern for Pasipo stays my welling panic. My glider instructor's words come clearly through the roar of the rushing air: "The only way out of oscillations is to keep the bank and force it into a turn." As the ship slips down through the trough and back up the port side, I hold my weight on the high side. The ship curves out of the trough into a wide circle. I watch the airspeed indicator: 50...45...40....

I search the sky for the augurs. Georgi is standing on the thatched roof of the bird mews with Pasipo safely on his glove. Her parents are rowing back up toward her waiting sister. I approach the peninsula just 50 feet above the top of the gray cliff walls. Pasipo is tearing bits of meat from Georgi's fist. Georgi laughs and calls up, "I thought a shetani was in your glider."

I laugh at the idea of an evil spirit possessing the ship and shout down, "Are the porters waiting below?"

"Yes, bwana" Georgi answers.

"See you in a couple of hours."

"See you." He waves. Pasipo is oblivious, finishing her raw steak.

Over the village of Kikwajuni, at the base of the mountains, I yell that I am coming in to land, "Ninakuja kutua!" Hundreds of kids run out from under the acacia trees and fan out through a field by the village. They scoop up handfuls of dirt and throw them into the air. The dirt explodes in puffs and floats downwind like smoke signals. On the lee side of the field I descend on my final approach, bleeding off speed as I skim across the ground. The children leap about, cheering. When the glider decelerates to stall speed, I throw the nose of the ship up into the wind, turning the wings perpendicular to the ground, breaking the airflow—almost like Pasipo touching down on the glove.

PHOTOCARTER COLEMANPasipo, confined by a leash clipped to her jesses, responded to Georgi's offer of food. PHOTOJULIAN OZANNEThe author went beak-to-beak with a friend's crowned eagle. PHOTOCARTER COLEMANCaught by a camera mounted on his glider, Coleman flew over the Usambara Mountains. TWO PHOTOSCARTER COLEMANGeorgi, Pasipo and Soxi, Georgi's dog, played on the studio doorstep. PHOTOCARTER COLEMANDespite not being able to take off from Kilimanjaro, the author found Africa uplifting.

Carter Coleman lives in New York City and Tanzania, where he works on a rain-forest project.