Fastest Natural Flier
Air Date: Week of June 22, 2012
Ken Franklin knew there was something special about Frightful, the peregrine falcon he raised from birth. He took her skydiving, and the driven bird kept pushing the limits of speed. From the IEEE Spectrum Radio special “Fastest on Earth,” Ari Daniel Shapiro reports on a man and the bird he loves who broke records as the fastest creature flier on the planet.
GELLERMAN: In just a few weeks it’s off to the races as the London Olympics get underway. It’s an international showcase featuring the world’s fastest athletes. Too bad falcons can’t compete because they’d win, wings down. Ari Daniel Shapiro has the tale of the fastest falcon of all. He found it on San Juan Island in Washington State.
His story comes to us by way of the I-Triple E Spectrum Magazine special: “Fastest on Earth”.
[SOUND OF OPENING FREEZER AND ROOTING AROUND]
SHAPIRO: Ken Franklin reaches into his kitchen freezer. Right next to the strawberries…
FRANKLIN: And here she is.
SHAPIRO: …is Frightful, a frozen peregrine falcon. Franklin takes Frightful out of a plastic bag.
FRANKLIN: She’s still, uh, beautifully preserved.
[SOUND OF STROKING FEATHERS]
SHAPIRO: Franklin strokes her feathers. He loves this bird. You see, Franklin helped Frightful achieve a staggering speed record. So, they’ve got history.
FRANKLIN: You know, we raised Frightful from an egg and she had full liberty to fly, but of course she chose to stay right here.
SHAPIRO: Frightful imprinted on Franklin and his wife Suzanne – meaning that the bird considered them her parents. Once she was old enough, they worked with her on flying exercises, just as they do with all the falcons they raise. These birds are fast.
FRANKLIN: It’s really amazing to have a falcon go up to a couple thousand feet out of sight. And you kinda think, “Well, that’s the end of that.” And about 15 minutes later, it sounds like ripping canvas and some bird that’s completely free comes back to land on your glove.
SHAPIRO: There was something special about Frightful, though – even for a falcon. She was driven. She was the first chick to stand up, the first to eat on her own. She was faster than the other falcons. And Franklin wanted to know just how fast. So he and Frightful began taking trips into the air together. They’d ride up to seven thousand feet in a skydiving plane. Franklin would release Frightful from the plane, and then he’d leap out. The two would rendezvous in the air, and Franklin would let go of a weighted lure. The lure would plunge towards the Earth at 150 miles an hour, and Frightful would catch it effortlessly on wing.
FRANKLIN: Then we started working on going faster to the point where we could build a lure that would approximate between 160 and 180 miles per hour.
SHAPIRO: Frightful easily caught the new lure. Franklin wanted to push her further, but he worried that a heavier lure might hurt Frightful as she caught it in freefall. So he got inventive.
FRANKLIN: So then I, as a skydiver, started becoming the lure – she would chase me to higher and higher speeds.
SHAPIRO: Franklin would leap from the aircraft, and just cannonball through the air.
FRANKLIN: I would hyper-streamline from a higher altitude, and then Frightful would follow me. We were able to take her higher up to 17,000 feet and at that point, she clocked at 242 miles per hour. She never left my side – she was there the whole time.
SHAPIRO: 242 miles an hour is the fastest recorded speed of any creature on the planet. And Franklin, locking eyes with Frightful while falling through the air, got to see how she did it.
FRANKLIN: In 120 to 150-mile an hour range, she was kind of in a diamond shape. But as the speed range increased, pushing into the 200 mile an hour range, she seemed to elongate herself, she’d get very streamlined and long-looking. And I knew, when I saw that, that I had seen what I wanted to see – that was how falcons go fast. That’s how they transition.
SHAPIRO: All this training and flying forged a real bond between Frightful and the Franklins.
FRANKLIN: We could freefall with her to 17,000 feet. And then she enjoyed coming in the house, like one of our children, watching Monday night football. I mean, she would sit on the couch next to us.
SHAPIRO: Ken and Suzanne Franklin worked and lived with Frightful for 14 years.
[SOUND OF DOOR MOVING]
SHAPIRO: Then one day, they found her in here, on the floor of her aviary. They think she died of a stroke or a heart attack. Suzanne was so sad she couldn’t talk about it for a year. Ken knows he’s unlikely to ever work with an athlete like Frightful again. It’s why they can’t bring themselves to let her go.
[SOUND OF FREEZER RUSTLING]
FRANKLIN: She’s actually in a pretty good streamlined position the way, the way we froze her.
SHAPIRO: Her right set of talons is extended, as if she’s about to catch one of those plummeting lures. And at least for now, Frightful’s world record is secure. I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.
GELLERMAN: Our story about Frightful the falcon is from the the I triple E-Spectrum Magazine special, “Fastest on Earth.” The publication received the 2012 National Magazine Award for general excellence.
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