Eagles, Wonder Winds, and Rest

The most memorable flight I’ve had so far took place at the Richmond Dale ridge on a Saturday afternoon in mid-October 2007.  The flight lasted 3 1/2 hours.  Two other Ohio Flyer pilots enjoyed the flying on that day which always adds a extra level of enjoyment as together we explore the atmosphere around the ridge.  Only a few times did I need to scratch (fly close to the trees or near the top of the ridge) to stay up. Most of the time I was able to experiment with finding the best part of the lift band while trying to gain as much altitude as possible. I was only able to achieve a maximum altitude of 350 feet above the launch, but my variometer logbook recorded a cumulative altitude gain during the flight of 10,700 feet.

bald-eagle4A couple of hours into the flight 3 bald eagles came and played above the ridge with us. Two of the eagles were mature adults with bright white head and tail feathers. The third eagle was a juvenile, but he was as big as the adults. He flew next to me for several minutes, sometimes just ahead and sometimes just behind. It was fun following the eagles as they found strong pockets of lift. They also did some aerobatics…wingovers, steep dives, and stalls. They seemed to welcome us to their domain with no obvious signs of irritation.  The experience of flying with these majestic birds for more than 30 minutes is something I will never forget.

Most cultures hold a high level of reverence for the eagle.  Typically eagles are associated with deities – they are either worshiped as some sort of a god, or they are instruments in the hands of the gods.  The Bible makes many references to eagles through it’s pages.  The fact that the eagle is a skillful hunter, that it makes its home in high places, and that it can soar so effortlessly are spoken of most often.  In Proverbs, the wise sage Agur makes this observation:

There are three things which are too wonderful for me,

Yes, four which I do not understand:

The way of an eagle in the air,

The way of a serpent on a rock,

The way of a ship in the midst of the sea,

And the way of a man with a virgin.

– Proverbs 30: 18-19

Perhaps the most oft-quoted Biblical reference to eagles is found in the prophetic book of Isaiah. In a chapter that the publisher of my particular Bible titles “God’s People Are Comforted” Isaiah pens these beautiful words:

Have you not known?

Have you not heard?

The everlasting God, the Lord,

The Creator of the ends of the earth,

Neither faints nor is weary.

His understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the weak.

And to those who have no might He increases strength.

Even the youths shall faint and be weary.

And the young men shall utterly fall,

But those who wait on the Lord

Shall renew their strength;

They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.

– Isaiah 40:28-31

As I’ve meditated on this passage, and pondered what it means when it says that “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength,” I’ve realized that God is not promising superhuman physical strength to those who trust in Him (although there are examples of this in numerous Old Testament stories).  Obviously the meaning of “strength” refers to something beyond mere physical prowess.

An eagle spends more time with its wings outstretched, riding on the wind, than it does flapping.  Isaiah must be referring to this aspect of an eagle’s flight when metaphorically comparing this to those who wait on the Lord, because in the heart of his message is in an encouragement to cease in our striving. God is all-powerful, and we should always depend on Him and His strength.

I experienced evening "glass off" conditions while flying the Katydid site in central New York state.

I experienced evening "glass off" conditions while flying the Katydid site in central New York state.

Glider pilots who fly along ridges or in mountains, if they are extremely fortunate, can experience this lack of “striving” while in flight.  Ridge soaring on a windy day is a lot of work.  Frequently the pilot is thrashed about unexpectedly, and he must always be ready to take aggressive action to avoid being thrown into the trees or dumped over the back of the ridge.  But, as the afternoon turns into evening and the sun sinks lower in the sky, if the ridge is facing west, a phenomenon called a “glass-off” can occur.  I’ve experienced this twice, and it is wonderful.  The bumpiness disappears, the air becomes “baby butt” smooth, and the pilot in his glider can climb to the highest altitudes of the day.  I’ve flown hands off for long periods of time in glass-off conditions while using the opportunity to take photographs.  These conditions are caused when the eastern slope on the opposite side of the valley becomes shaded in the waning sunlight.  The air on the shaded slope cools and sinks into the valley, pushing the bulk of warm air in the valley up the western slope.

I personally have not experienced the other type of effortless soaring called “wonder winds” or “magic air.”  Pilots talk in reverential tones when telling stories of their flights when the valleys in which they were soaring “wondered.”  This occurs when the slopes on both sides of the basin cool, and the air on the slopes sinks down into the valley.  The warmer air in the valley is gently pushed upward in a large mass, and glider pilots can fly almost anywhere at will while maintaining altitude.  It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Certainly, eagles utilize these conditions to achieve effortless flight, and this may be the source of Isaiah’s inspiration.  But no one can deny that eagles have very powerful wings.  While clutching captured prey in it’s talons an eagle can take off and fly while carrying a dinner that equals its own weight.  Perhaps the eagle can do this because he conserves energy by soaring on the winds whenever possible.

So how do we cease in our striving while trusting in the Lord?  What does this mean? After all, the writer of Ecclesiastes gives the exhortation “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10a).  Perhaps these words of Jesus may be instructive and encouraging:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

– Matthew 11:28-30

He will give us rest if we take upon ourselves His yoke.  His yoke is obeying the things He taught. In another place Jesus said “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him (Jesus) whom He sent”  (John 6:29).  Obedience to Jesus, getting in the yoke with Him, brings blessings and rest.  Disobedience to the things taught by Jesus causes frustration because of the troubles that come as a result of disobedience. So through faith and obedience we can cease our strivings (doing it our way in our own strength).  It’s like the difference between scratching to say up or riding on wonder winds in glass-off conditions.


2 Responses to Eagles, Wonder Winds, and Rest

  1. Kim Banker says:

    Mark, So glad to hear you are feeling better, and I’m thrilled to have found your blog. You have quite a gift in your writing and your faith. I have been struggling with my own faith as of late and to be able to read a fellow hang glider pilots view has been encouraging. The way you mix faith and flight makes it highly readable for other pilots. Thanks Mark, I needed this! Kim Banker

  2. I highly enjoyed reading your blogpost, keep up making such exciting posts.

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