Pilots contesting the world’s fastest motorsports series, the Red Bull Air World Championship which begins its season in the UAE capital this weekend, came face-to-face with nature’s fastest fliers recently when they made a leisurely landing at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital – the first, largest, and most sophisticated of its kind.
The falcon, an endangered species of migratory birds of prey that winters in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, has been a hunting companion and vital food provider to the UAE’s population for centuries, and holds a special place in Emirati traditions.
“I very much respect the importance the Emiratis give falcons. It’s not perceived merely as a bird, but it’s treated as a family member, and I like that they have such respect for flying creatures – like us,” said Austrian Red Bull Air Racepilot Hannes Arch.
“The falcons and we pilots share the same spirit. They’re out flying, hunting for food, which is essentially what we do. We’re also out flying for sustenance – but in a different way,” smiled Hannes. “Flying is the lifeline for us both.”
Dr. Margit Muller, Director of Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, guided the pilots through its state-of-the-art facilities, and explained the falcon’s special place in UAE society.
“They’re treasured like their owners’ children,” said Dr. Margit.
“That’s how dear they are to Emirati people. The UAE government even issues official passports for the falcons for international air travel. However,the passport’s identification criterion differs from a passport for human, in that there’s no passport picture, since the Peregrine falcons change their feathers yearly, and look complete different from year to year.”
German pilot Mattias Dolderer jumped at the chance to feed a falcon inside the hospital’s theatre. With the falcon Azzam, named after its ‘determination’ to catch its prey, on his arm he gripped a piece of raw quail meat, which the falcon eagerly started picking at.
“The strength of their claw grip and the pull when picking at the meat surprised me. I had to hold the drumstick with the full force of my hand so she wouldn’t pull the whole thing right out of my grip. It’s definitely a fierce hunter.
“Visiting the hospital was a wonderful experience. Its facilities are outstanding, better than some clinics for humans I reckon. And the falcons are super interesting. They’re like our colleagues,” said Dolderer smilingly. “The speeds they can reach is amazing, and I was impressed with the focus they show in hunting prey. Once they zoom in on something, they let nothing come in their way. This is much like we do when we fly.”
With the Red Bull Air Race returning to Abu Dhabi after a three year the pilots were excited to explore and experience UAE culture and heritage.
It was Asia’s first Red Bull Air Race pilot, Japanese Yoshihide Muroya’s fifth trip to the emirate, but first visit to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
“Getting to hold a falcon for the first time was a special experience for me,” said Yoshi.
“It’s a beautiful bird. Even though we have a tradition for falconry in Japan, I’ve never had the chance to get so close to a falcon.”
Hannes Arch, who was instrumental in getting the Red Bull Air World Championship off the ground from the start, shared Yoshi’s sentiments: “It’s very special for me being back here, since Abu Dhabi has supported the Red Bull Air Race since the beginning. It has become a tradition for us to start the Championship in Abu Dhabi. It’s a great place with luxurious hotels, and a fascinating culture to explore. Whenever you travel somewhere you always want to familiarise yourself with the people and the culture, and the falcon hospital is a very interesting place to visit and learn about this particular aspect of Emirati culture.”