There is a bird that flies so high that it can rival the height of commercial air travel.
This was witnessed in 1973 when a Ruppell’s griffon vulture, the planet’s highest-flying bird, was reportedly ingested by an airliner’s jet engine as it cruised over Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, in Africa at 36,100 feet. This is an amazing feat, and the altitude is much higher than Mt. Everest (29,029 feet).
These birds of central Africa commonly fly at and above about 20,000 feet, and they a high affinity for oxygen that allows them to fly at these extreme levels. The vultures have a variant of hemoglobin alphaD that enables them to breathe despite the low partial pressure of the upper atmosphere.
The Ruppell’s griffon vulture has an eight-foot wingspan and isn’t that fast. They cruise at around 22 mph in flight and fly around 7 hours per day. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why the bird flies at such incredible heights, and it would be interesting to know what the evolutionary advantage there is to having this ability. The high flying ability could allow for a greater range in travel as the bird takes advantage of the upper winds, or it may be because there are no other predators that would be able to take them out of the sky; except for airplanes, of course.