Lt. Col. Don Rhymer can laugh a little now about losing the Air Force’s live mascot falcon during the football team’s bowl game Monday.
ESPN’s cameras captured video of “Ace” flying out of the stadium during a pregame performance at the Independence Bowl. A search party of five from Air Force used the falcon’s tracking device to locate him in downtown Shreveport, La., about three hours later.
Rhymer did a few interviews Tuesday, including one with ESPN Radio, but it was a serious and worrisome matter for a few hours. The main concern? Owls.
Falcons can’t see well at night. Owls can.
“An owl sees him as prey,” said Rhymer, the officer in charge of falconry, who teaches mechanical engineering at the academy. “It was a big concern. As it gets to be dark, it becomes more and more important.”
Having a falcon fly out of the stadium during a performance isn’t unheard of. Rhymer said it happens maybe once a season, usually early in the season when the birds are learning their routines, not at a bowl game with a large audience watching and joking about it on Twitter.
Rhymer said the academy has 13 falcons, used mostly for educational purposes or community events. Three of those birds fly for performances, and “Ace” had done just about every football game this year.
“He’s been our best flier all year,” Rhymer said.
The falcon was supposed to fly from atop the stadium to the field. The trick is using an association with food. The bird flies to its handler on the field because it gets food when it does. The falcon is kept at a certain weight, and hungry, so it has a reason to stick around.
Rhymer said “Ace” was a little heavy Sunday, and didn’t look quite right when it practiced. “Ace” is supposed to be 30 ounces, but was 32 ounces Sunday. A fat and happy “Ace” didn’t come for its treat when he was released before the Independence Bowl.
“I should have told the public affairs folks he should not fly,” Rhymer said.
Once the bird flew out of the stadium, worry set in. There was a search, which led the five people from the academy to a rural area, but eventually they located “Ace” on top of a downtown building. There was a parking garage near the building, and from atop the parking garage Rhymer got “Ace” to fly back to him. “Ace” was back at the stadium before the end of the game.
The tracking system starts to lose a connection if the bird gets six or seven miles away, Rhymer said, and the battery on the transmitter can run out. He said they would have searched all night for “Ace” as long as they maintained a signal, or stayed in Shreveport to locate him Tuesday. Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary, and there was some good natured humor - and publicity – out of the incident.
“It’s interesting – mixed emotions certainly,” Rhymer said. “We’re glad we got the bird back. We’re caretakers as much as we are trainers.”
Air Force could celebrate the 14-7 win by the football team and the fact that it found the falcon and safely brought it back to the academy.
“It looks like the Falcons were 2-0 – the Falcon came home and the Falcons won the Independence Bowl,” said Lt. Col. John Bryan, director of Air Force Academy public affairs.