Fastest Natural Flier: Peregrine Falcon

Ken Franklin’s peregrine falcon, Frightful, at 242 miles per hour

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This segment is part of the IEEE Spectrum series “Fastest on Earth.”

Susan Hassler: And now, our fastest critters reporter, Ari Daniel Shapiro, brings us the swiftest creature in the air. We go to San Juan Island, in Washington state.

Ari Daniel Shapiro: Ken Franklin reaches into his kitchen freezer. Right next to the strawberries…

Ken Franklin: And here she is.

Ari Daniel Shapiro: …is Frightful, a frozen peregrine falcon. Franklin takes Frightful out of a plastic bag.

Ken Franklin: She’s still, uh, beautifully preserved.

Ari Daniel Shapiro: Franklin strokes her feathers. He loves this bird. You see, Franklin helped Frightful achieve a staggering speed record. So they’ve got history.

Ken 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.

Ari Daniel 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 their falcons they raise. These birds are fast.

Ken Franklin: It’s really amazing to have a falcon go up to a couple thousand feet out of sight. And you kind of 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.

Ari Daniel 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 7000 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 toward the Earth at 150 miles an hour, and Frightful would catch it effortlessly on wing.

Ken 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.

Ari Daniel 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.

Ken Franklin: So then I, as a skydiver, started becoming the lure—she would chase me to higher and higher speeds.

Ari Daniel Shapiro: Franklin would leap from the aircraft and just cannonball through the air.

Ken Franklin: Right. I would hyperstreamline 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.

Ari Daniel Shapiro: Two hundred forty-two 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.

Ken Franklin: In [the] 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.

Ari Daniel Shapiro: All this training and flying forged a real bond between Frightful and the Franklins.

Ken 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.

Ari Daniel Shapiro: Ken and Suzanne Franklin worked and lived with Frightful for 14 years.

Ari Daniel 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.

Ken Franklin: She’s actually in a pretty good streamlined position the way we froze her.

Ari Daniel 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.

Photo: Daniel J Cox/Getty Images
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