A Flight Plan to Glory Ends Tragically for Bomber, the Official Bald Eagle of the 1984 Olympics

updated 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It seemed like a grand and patriotic idea—take a lonely, overweight bald eagle named Bomber and transform him into a soaring symbol of freedom for the Los Angeles Olympics. But even noble experiments can go awry. Unfortunately for Bomber, this one did. At 22 (the middle years as eagles go), Bomber has become perhaps the most tragic loser of the 1984 Summer Games. Only 48 hours after an inspirational performance at a dress rehearsal—and two weeks before the opening Olympic ceremonies at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum—the eagle was dead.

Because bald eagles are on the endangered and threatened species lists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has launched an official investigation. An independent autopsy found that Bomber died of an acute bacterial infection, which may have been triggered by sudden changes in his diet and environment. Yet, according to the bird's grief-stricken trainer, Steve Hoddy, Bomber was also a victim of red tape. Like a poor person turned away from a hospital emergency room for lack of a Blue Cross card, the desperately ill Bomber was refused aid at several veterinary clinics.

But that's flying ahead of the story. Bomber's brief flight for glory began last November when Hoddy, 33, a veteran California bird trainer, had a brainstorm: Why not include America's symbol of freedom in the Olympic extravaganza? He proposed it to David Wolper, producer of the opening ceremonies, and director Tommy Walker. "They loved the idea," says Hoddy. "The bird would soar over the Coliseum as The Star-Spangled Banner was being played and then land on a perch right beside the American flag."

Hoddy wanted to use Fluff, his own 12-year-old eagle of the nonendangered golden variety, as a stand-in for a bald eagle, but the producers insisted on authenticity. Hoddy turned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which reluctantly provided a candidate from among the 39 bald eagles at its Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. That candidate was Bomber, a food-loving, aggressive bird who seldom flew, and who tipped the scales at a pudgy 11 pounds. Though some Patuxent officials had doubts about uprooting Bomber(they thought the stunt might be "too dangerous"), he was flown in June to Hoddy's San Fernando Valley home. There Hoddy spent $5,000 to build a birdhouse with two 10-foot-square rooms, and put Bomber on a lean-meat diet of chicken necks and an occasional rabbit. Aerial training was limited to just 45 minutes a day, "teaching Bomber to fly. He had a few crash landings, of course, but no major problems," says Hoddy. "He seemed to be enjoying himself." Six weeks into training, he was down to a streamlined 7¾ pounds.

On July 12 Hoddy took Bomber to the Coliseum for major flight testing. At rehearsal, Bomber took off on a long tether, and after flying about 100 yards, landed safely. Later Hoddy removed the tether, and Bomber soared again. "I knew there was a risk he'd just fly off, but his performance was perfection," Hoddy says.

Two days later, disaster struck. Hoddy awoke to find Bomber weak, disoriented and barely able to stay on his perch. The trainer fed him Nutri-Cal and Gatorade, hoping to pep him up. Hoddy then called five nearby veterinarians, but all turned Bomber away because they lacked either experience or the licenses to treat an endangered species. As Bomber lapsed into convulsions, a desperate Hoddy put the eagle into a cage and set out in his camper to see Dr. Walter Rosskopf, a specialist on birds of prey in Lawndale, some 50 miles away. Rosskopf had agreed to treat Bomber, but the eagle was DOA.

"It was a dreadful thing," says Rosskopf, who performed Bomber's autopsy. "Had the bird gotten immediate medical attention, it might have survived." The primary trouble, he says, "was a salmonella strain of bacteria that could have been dormant in the bird's intestines for years. I don't think the trainer did anything wrong. It was a wonderful idea that was perhaps not the most practical, like taking a 300-pound man and trying to turn him into a 170-pound athlete in six weeks."

Dr. James Carpenter, chief vet of Patuxent, was upset about Bomber's death. He worries that it may have been caused by Bomber's sudden weight loss and new hectic lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Hoddy has borne the brickbats of strangers calling him "eagle killer"—and worse. But he too is crushed. "I loved that bird," he says. "It was like losing a member of the family."

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