With more than 30,000 screaming fans in attendance and all eyes on her, Cadet First Class Jensen Caster walks across the U.S. Air Force Academy‚Äôs football field at half time and makes her way to the fifty-yard line.
She‚Äôs ready for her moment.
It‚Äôs been three years in the making and she‚Äôs still terrified. To make matters worse, her mother and father are in the stands.
As the stadium announcer introduces her, Caster slides a leashed, leather, bait-filled lure through her hands and slowly begins to spin it in a wide circle. With the ‚Äúwhoosh‚ÄĚ of each spin the world around her fades away.
She looks up high in the stands to see her winged partner, Ziva, a beautiful, large white gyr-saker falcon, whom she‚Äôs handled from a baby, or, as Caster puts it, ‚Äúa little dark feathery puffball.‚ÄĚ
All the training, all the bites and scratches, all the bird poop, it all comes down to this: Their first solo performance together.
‚ÄúAs soon as she jumped off the glove, I didn‚Äôt hear the announcements, I didn‚Äôt hear the crowd, all I could see was Ziva diving across the field,‚ÄĚ Caster said. ‚ÄúAll I could do is what we always practiced. She‚Äôs like my child. I didn‚Äôt want to embarrass her. If I mess up it could put her at harm and that‚Äôs what worried me the most.‚ÄĚ
Ziva swoops down at nearly 100 mph and at the last second Caster pulls the bait away, seding her falcon to turn and circle the crowd, readying another attack.
The falcon is behaviorally trained to come back to the falconer, diving in again for its prize.
Caster tosses the lure into the sky and in an instant Ziva‚Äôs wings spread wide open and she stops instantly, snatching the lure from the air before landing on the turf.
Their moment is a success.
Demonstrations like this are a staple for the Academy‚Äôs falconry team, which performs for nearly 600,000 spectators a year at sporting events and educational visits nationwide. The first Academy class selected the falcon as its mascot in 1955 and the falconry team began performing at football games in 1956.
Twelve cadets make up the team, with four new cadets selected at the end of each incoming class. There are 10 birds in the Academy‚Äôs McIntyre Mews ‚Äď some are breeders and some are flyers, but they all represent the Air Force.
The falconry team conducts over 200 presentations a year promoting wildlife conservation and education of these raptors to thousands of people, said John Van Winkle, an assistant falconry officer in charge, who has worked with the program since 2001.
‚ÄúOur presentations have a multi-tiered effect for the Air Force. We educate audiences from young to old while also educating our new team members. Our cadets and falcons command 100 percent attention of any room with all eyes on the Air Force,‚ÄĚ Van Winkle said. ‚ÄúWe create young officers who are Air Force ambassadors and can tackle any public speaking engagement, all while hopefully gaining the attention of future cadets in the audience.‚ÄĚ
Bottom line, the falcons and the cadets represent air superiority, said Van Winkle.
‚ÄúThe Academy chose the falcon for its superiority in the air. The falcon is the best air-to-air killer and we represent that as an Air Force,‚ÄĚ Caster said. ‚ÄúThey are the best and we are the best. Their presence demands recognition and our Air Force does too.‚ÄĚ
Although any falcon can serve as an Academy Mascot, the white phase gyrfalcon has always been the official mascot of the Air Force Academy.
Caster, a behavior science major, decided to apply after meeting a fellow cadet in her squadron who was on the team. Caster was selected from 50 applicants and now three years later, as a senior and a leader on the team, she still feels incredibly lucky to be part of the program.
Caster has learned a lot during her time as a falconer. She‚Äôs developed an appreciation for the birds and the people who work with them and she‚Äôs learned to be more self-confident and outgoing. She also has a better understanding of what it‚Äôs like to work within a close-knit team that is working toward a common goal.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a cadet-led program,‚ÄĚ Caster said. ‚ÄúThe three things we are looking for is working well with the team, working well with the public, because we do so many outreach events, but most of all we want you to care about and take care of the birds.‚ÄĚ
The falcons come from a variety of sources. The Academy does have its own breeding program, but on occasion birds have been purchased and some are acquired from rescue groups.
‚ÄúThey are never wanting for anything. They get the cushiest life of any bird ever,‚ÄĚ Caster said. ‚ÄúThey are ambassadors for their species and they provide a greater awareness for the Air Force.‚ÄĚ
Cadets on the falconry team are licensed after passing a Colorado Department of Wildlife raptor licensing exam. Underclassmen learn how to handle the falcons by the upperclassmen, the officer-in-charge and the Academy‚Äôs master falconer, Sam Dollar. Duties include feeding, health screening, manning training and maintaining the mews and the equipment.
Caster believes the Academy‚Äôs falconry team is one of the country‚Äôs best education platforms for the species. With the cadets having birds and being able to go out to schools, travel across the country and teach people about them, it means the education the Air Force is providing is helping raise awareness of the falcons.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs so much more than what I thought it would be,‚ÄĚ Caster said. ‚ÄúI knew I would be able to care and handle the birds, but I‚Äôve had opportunities all across the country that I would have never dreamed of doing. I‚Äôve been able to travel and meet outstanding people because of this.‚ÄĚ
There are always questions, too. The kids, especially, are always curious about the relationship between the falcons and their handlers.
‚ÄúWe build bonds more with the birds more than they do with us. It‚Äôs not like a dog where they love you, but they do recognize you,‚ÄĚ Caster said. ‚ÄúYou have to remember they are still wild animals.‚ÄĚ
For Caster the most beautiful thing about these birds is the way they fly. Falcons don‚Äôt soar, they are aggressive, they flap their wings and climb high before tucking and going into a dive.
‚Äú‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a gorgeous thing to watch. They look like tear drops falling from the sky,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúThey are so fast it‚Äôs slightly terrifying how powerful they are in their flight. Watching Ziva fly is my favorite thing.‚ÄĚ
For fellow falconer, Cadet First Class ¬≠¬≠Justin Weber, his favorite thing is the opportunity to handle the falcons and the escape the falconry team provides from the studies of astronautical engineering.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a whole different world from the classroom,‚ÄĚ Weber said. ‚ÄúThe camaraderie of the team and stress relief of handling a bird of prey keeps you grounded. Not to mention you get to handle a falcon within your first month on the team. In the civilian world it could take up to seven years.‚ÄĚ
Weber is also a second generation Air Force Academy falconer.
‚ÄúMy dad is a hard guy, he doesn‚Äôt cry about anything,‚ÄĚ Weber said. ‚ÄúHe cried when our dog died, when I was accepted into the Academy and he may have shed a tear when I got into falconry, because now we share a father-son legacy.‚ÄĚ
Weber handles Apollo, a gyr-peregrine falcon he‚Äôs trained since a freshman. As a senior, it‚Äôs his responsibility to teach the underclassmen the characteristics and tendencies of the falcon.
‚ÄúApollo loves to fly low over the crowd. He flies hard, so you have to recognize when he‚Äôs had enough and give him the lure. If not, he‚Äôs also been known to stray and he‚Äôll sit and wait for you to come get him,‚ÄĚ Weber said.
In case this does happen, each falcon is fitted with a small radio transmitter which allows the team to locate it.
Each cadet will only be on the team for four years at most, so they know saying goodbye to the falcons is inevitable.
For Caster, it will definitely be difficult to let go. Still, she knows she‚Äôs done her job and trained the incoming members who are going to be working with Ziva and she trusts everyone will be taking good care of the falcon.
‚ÄúTo me a falcon is the most regal and powerful bird out there,‚ÄĚ Caster said. ‚ÄúYes, there‚Äôs the eagle, which, is the symbol of our country, and yes there‚Äôs the silent killers with owls or hawks that are soaring birds, but nothing matches the speed aggression and pure bliss it is to fly as the falcon. Maybe it‚Äôs because I‚Äôve seen them in action so much, or maybe it‚Äôs a little bit of school pride.‚ÄĚ