is a tale about Osceola, a one-winged eagle that returns to the sky
through hang gliding. His story begins in 1983 in a field in eastern
Arkansas. Two rabbit hunters were crossing this field when they spotted
an immature Bald eagle on the ground, trying to become airborne.
They noticed his left wing dangled as he ran and concluded that he
had been injured. The two quickly surrounded the bird and one of
the hunters took his jacket off and tossed it over the eagle. This
confused him and allowed the hunter to scoop him up in a protective
wrap and gave the man control over the raptor’s powerful feet.
hunters promptly called the local game warden and transferred the
eagle to him. At the time, I worked at the Memphis Zoo and ran the
Raptor Rehab Program. The warden called me, and told of the injured
bird and asked if I could meet him near Osceola, Arkansas. He said
that the eagle appeared to have a compound fracture and advised me
to bring something to wrap the bird’s wing. I drove for an hour, met the warden and sure enough,
the bone was exposed and the wing looked pretty bad. I carefully wrapped
the wing and returned to the zoo. The staff vet, Dr. Mike Douglas did
a more thorough exam where he x-rayed the bird’s entire body and
checked for parasites. Dr. Douglas decided to pin and wire the broken
humerus back together but had doubts that this would help. The eagle
had apparently been on the ground about a week before he was found.
three days of work and heavy antibiotic treatment, the wing refused
to heal. The eagle, now named Osceola, had become very sick due to
all of the toxins in the severely infected limb. A decision was made
to amputate the wing in order to save the bird’s life. He would
never fly again, but at least he would be alive.
quickly rebounded from the surgery and adjusted to the lack of a
left wing. I soon began taking him on the education shows I did.
Over a year went by and Osceola had become well known in the Memphis
and Mid-south area. Even though he wasn’t white-headed yet, people were excited to
see our National Symbol up close. Most were saddened by what had happened
to him and many expressed dismay that he would never fly again. An
idea came to me. Perhaps he could fly again with my help. I had been
a hang glider pilot for about nine years. Maybe I could construct a
harness for him and take him flying with me. Pilots took their dogs
with them, why not an eagle?
idea was good, but my work situation did not lend itself to flying
with Osceola. To my disbelief, he was ordered to be sent to another
zoo or wildlife facility. I had been in contact with a group in Nashville
that was starting a raptor rehab and educational facility. The outlook
for my future employment with this organization looked pretty good.
The proper arrangements were made and Osceola was sent to the Cumberland
Wildlife Foundation. He was there for about a year when I joined
him in early 1986. Reunited, we did more educational shows than ever
before, including the "Save
The Eagle" campaign.
fame began to spread. He began hob-nobbing with some of the country
stars, the Governor of Tennessee and was made an Honorary Citizen of
Nashville. He was even becoming known to the hang gliding community
as we did shows for the Tennessee Treetoppers, the ‘88 Nationals
and the East Coast Championships. Flying with Osceola had not been
forgotten, but shelved at this time due to what was to become a reoccurring
theme in my life, a busy work schedule.
1989, I decided that maybe it was time to try to get Osceola in the
air. I contacted Mark Stump, a pilot in Arkansas, who made harnesses.
I discussed with him my plan and then sent him Osceola’s dimensions and materials
for a harness. Mark quickly made the first of three harnesses for the
eagle. This one was simply too small. It wasn’t Mark’s fault,
I simply forgot to leave room for sewing in the zippers. He made a
larger second harness which appeared to be the right size.
had become very busy that year. The Cumberland Wildlife Foundation
was in a state of economic collapse. We were a non-profit organization
with about sixty birds to care for with little money in the bank.
solution was to find another job, so I was left to try to keep the organization
alive and the birds fed. The time and money to go hang gliding was severely
limited. Salvation came later that year when the non-profit group, The
National Foundation to Protect America’s Eagles, (now known as
American Eagle Foundation) headed by Al Cecere, took over the CWF's
birds and hired me on. The CWF folded soon thereafter.
1990, the NFPAE began negotiations with Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s entertainment
park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee) to sponsor and build a national eagle
education, breeding and rehabilitation center. Dollywood liked the idea
of displaying the eagles we cared for and liked the educational shows
we were conducting at the time. Agreements were made, and we relocated
all of our birds to Dollywood in January 1991. Dollywood had built a
fine facility for us, including breeding and holding enclosures and
the largest eagle aviary in the U.S., called Eagle Mt. Sanctuary. They
also built a theater next to the sanctuary where we conducted our "Wings
of America" educational show with Osceola as it’s star. Osceola
even got to appear on the Today Show with Dolly. Before we went on camera,
she jokingly said to me "Don’t let Osceola snatch my hair
off on National T.V.!" In our first year, over 500,000 people
attended our show and saw the eagles on display. Since that time many
millions of people have experienced the same.
with Osceola was once again backburnered due to a busy work schedule.
My own flying was limited to a few mountain flights and training
hill work. Osceola’s harness did get used in rehabilitating a couple of injured
eagles. At least it was getting some hang time and we learned that we
needed to make some improvements as a result. Finally, in December of
1995, I told Al, my boss, that I would like to make a serious effort
to fly with Osceola. He was behind me, but insisted that we do a lot
of planning before an actual flight was made. One of the eagles we were
rehabilitating managed to wiggle out of the harness with a little effort.
Al Cecere had made the observation during late night visit to our rehab
facility, and informed me about it. This was something I didn’t
want to happen to Osceola at 3000 feet! Modifications were in order.
An internal zipper and some Velcro straps would be needed to comfortably
restrain him. The harness was not in the best of shape either, so I
took it to Lookout Mountain Flight Park to see what they could do with
it. I talked to Alan, Kat, and Meredith of the harness shop and with
all the changes needed, Alan said that it would be cheaper to build
a new one. Thus a new, improved harness was constructed, shipped, and
then given it’s first fitting. To my surprise, Osceola did very
well in it. Even hanging for periods of 15-30 minutes, he was very
calm. A few minor modifications were made, but this new harness would
be the one to take him back to the sky.
The next step
was to climb into my harness and hook the harnessed Osceola in next
to me. He was hanging a little to close to me, so an outrigger system
was devised to move the eagle about 6 inches out, but would still be
connected to my hang point. This worked fine. The next problem was to
somehow isolate his 2.5 inch talon from my harness and me. I did not
want his talons scraping my harness or have him grab something and become
entangled. I devised a foot shield to keep this from happening.
were now in the ground testing phase. My friend Tim Locke, also a
pilot, donated the use of his truck. We placed my assembled glider,
in flying position, in the bed of his truck (a la platform towing).
I then hooked in and Osceola was then hooked in to my harness. We
then proceeded to drive around one of Dollywood’s huge parking lots. This gave Osceola
the sensation of movement and he was fine until we began a turn. At
this point, he would start to move his feet and would snag one of his
talons on the foot shield causing him to panic. I finally decided to
remove the shield and attached Osceola’s leather jesse straps
to a bungee. The bungee was then connected to the end of my harness.
This worked! On our next circuit, Osce calmly enjoyed everything, including
the turns. I then modified the foot shield where it would only be on
the side of my harness and on the side facing the flying wires.
of the biggest obstacles to overcome was to get permission from the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Al, my Boss, reminded me that I would
have to get permission from the Service before I could fly with Osce.
I drafted a letter that Al made additions to and sent a copy to our
regional Fish and Wildlife Service office in Atlanta. We worked closely
with Carmen Simonton of the Permit Office and she carefully guided
us through the intricate twists and turns. Originally, permission
was denied, but with Carmen’s
help, the O.K. was finally given, especially since the flying was going
to be included in an educational special about eagles and the NFPAE
on the Disney Channel.
were now ready for real flight. The method I chose to get us airborne
was aerotowing. Since the glider pilot in aerotowing is already in
flying position, this would prove to be the ideal way to get Osceola
in the air. I chose to do the aerotowing at Lookout Mt. Flight Park.
It was close by and LMFP’s aerotow team has over five years
of towing experience. I made my first aerotows two years ago here
and was comfortable with the setup. Matt Taber generously loaned
me the use of a Falcon 195. For the Osceola flights, the Falcon would
be easier to tow than the Formula I fly and this ease of towing would
allow me to concentrate on the eagle during the flights.
the first trip to Lookout, I made the first tow flight with Osceola’s harness.
I wanted to see if the modified foot shield would cause any problems.
Sure enough, the shield caught too much air causing the harness to turn
sideways. I landed and looked for a solution. Al Cecere suggested that
I take the shield off and wrap Osceola’s feet and talons with a
bandage like we do when we band wild eaglets. This would allow free
movement of his feet without his talons scraping my harness. I would
have flown with Osceola that day, but we didn’t have anything with
which to wrap his feet. We returned a week later, this time Al and I
wrapped Osce’s feet with foam rubber and a stretchy self-sticking
bandage called Vet Wrap. With Osceola loaded and wrapped, I climbed
into my harness, hooked into the glider and Osceola was then attached
to my harness by Al. We were now ready.
signaled to the tow pilot, Neal Harris, that we were ready to go.
The ultralight engine was revved and we were soon rolling to a takeoff.
The glider lifted off the dolly and I held my altitude at about twenty
feet until the tug got into the air. I could feel Osceola moving
his feet and I’m
sure he didn’t expect to be this high above the ground. As we started
to gain altitude and the ground dropped away, he settled down. He began
looking around, perhaps realizing that he was in the air again. After
thirteen years, he was back in his element, albeit not exactly as he
had known before, but as close as "humanly" possible. We
quickly reached 2000 feet and I pulled the release lever. We were now
free flying around 20 m.p.h. Osce was turning his head looking at the
top of the mountain, the sky, the ground, the glider, and me. About
100 feet below us was a pair of Red-tailed hawks. He immediately spotted
them and watched as they passed to the front, side and finally behind
us. Perhaps, it was at this point that Osceola realized that he was
in the sky again. For thirteen years, he could only look up at soaring
hawks. Now, he was looking at the tops of their wings!
really seemed to enjoy the flight. He had to get used to my turns
and would move his feet when I made one. After about ten minutes
of free flying, it was time to land. I landed on my wheels, elated
that the flight went so well. As I unhooked from the glider, Osceola
had a look like, "Hey
rookie, is that the best you can do?!? Gosh, I used to land in trees
better than that!"
I decided that
one flight was enough for the day and drove back to Pigeon Forge. On
the drive home, I reviewed the flight. Something struck me...I have
always felt bad for Osceola, for what had happened to him. But thinking
about the way he watched the Redtails below us, made me sad and a little
choked up. How he must miss flying! He no longer enjoys the freedom
to go where he wants. Even I have more freedom as a flying bird-man
than he does.
returned a week later, this time with a film crew from the Disney
Channel. At sunset, we made a beautiful 2000 ft.tow. Matt Taber piloted
the Dragonfly, with a cameraman to document the flight. The cameraman
said that there wasn’t enough light left for filming. It didn’t matter to
Osceola, he was flying again. He got to see the sun setting behind Lookout
and a world painted with orange and rosy hues. After we landed, Al unhooked
Osce from the glider and I put him in his sky kennel for the night.
The film crew attached a digital video camera to the glider’s left
wing in preparation for the next morning’s early flights.
dawned clear and cool. We got everything ready to take advantage
of the calm morning air. The glider was set on the launch dolly and
wheeled into place. Neal took the tug for a flight to check the morning
air. He landed and announced "Smooth as glass!" Osceola was harnessed and
his feet wrapped by Al and I, then I suited up and hooked myself to
the glider. Then Al hooked Osceola to the glider and latched him to
my pod. Al checked and double checked to make sure everything was safe
and secure. Then he laid his hand on the helmet on my head and said
a prayer. This time, our flight plan was to go to 4000 feet. This would
allow Matt and the cameraman in the chase ultralight to get plenty of
shooting time. The tug was in position, the tow line was then connected
to the glider and me. A check was made of the release system. We were
now ready. This would be the highest flight Osceola would have made
in thirteen years. The takeoff was uneventful and we began our 10 minute
climb to the designated altitude. The air was incredibly clear! I was
amazed at how far I could see and how crisp and detailed everything
appeared. By the time we reached release altitude, I could see the Tennessee
River as it wound it’s way around Chattanooga and churned towards
the northwest into Alabama. I could see the Smoky Mountains, some 70
miles in the distance and could recognize some of the familiar peaks.
No telling what Osceola could see with his superior vision. Could he
have possibly seen Atlanta some 100 miles to the south?
was soaking in the view probably as much as Osceola was. His head
was in motion, looking one way and then the other. His eyes reflected
a sense of fascination. The glide down didn’t last as long as it normally would have. When
the photo ultralight would come close by, I would increase my speed
to match it’s speed, degrading my glide in the process. This time,
Osceola didn’t seem to mind the speed, maybe because we were higher.
We made three more flights that day. With each flight, Osceola became
calmer during the launch and landing procedures. We took our last flight,
and since thermals starting to form, it was a little bumpier than the
first three. We entered a small thermal and gained a small amount of
altitude, once again something Osceola hadn’t experienced in a
while. Since the camera was moved to the front of the glider, our last
landing was made on the wheels. It too, went well. Al unhooked Osceola
from the glider and my pod, and I put him, minus his harness, on his
traveling perch. This allowed him to cool off and get a well-deserved
drink of water. He had a different look about him. Not one of fear,
but possibly one of elation. He had now made eight flights and had
a total of 2 hour and 10 minutes of airtime. Not bad for an eagle with
I look back on our flights, it is almost hard for me to believe that
this has finally happened. It has been a 12 year dream, one filled
with false starts and occasional disappointment, but a dream I never
gave up. I have finally been able to give something back to Osceola,
something we both understand. I would like to thank Matt Taber and
the folks at Lookout Mountain Flight Park for helping me make this
happen. Thanks also go to Al Cecere, my supervisor, and to Carmen
Simonton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for her efforts to
get the official permission to make this possible. Thank you’s go to everyone else that helped make this a reality,
including the members of the NFPAE staff who have been dedicated to
caring for Osceola since 1991. As Osceola was sitting on his perch,
a glider came in to land. He watched the glider and then looked at me
as if saying "What are we waiting for? Let’s go back for