A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

September 2006

Mother Nature's Designs

To a pilot, bad weather is not something he likes to wake up to.  It’s even worse when he flies into it.  But if he’s a working pilot, it can offer an unexpected day off.  A chance to catch up on other things, like doing his laundry, writing letters, cleaning his living quarters, his airplane, shopping for his groceries, or even writing articles such as this one.

A delay of a few hours would sometimes mean I’d be sitting in a pilot lounge at some little airport on the prairies.  Lounge is a generous description of many of those places.  More often it meant a little building with a bathroom, a phone, a pilot registration book, sometimes a coffee pot, a broken down lumpy couch and inevitably, a stack of old flying magazines.  The reading material is generally donations from the local flying club members, who quite rightly assumed there would be a more useful afterlife for the magazines than simply sending them to the landfill. 

Some articles are relevant and important to pilots everywhere.  Mostly, they help to pass the time, waiting for the weather to break.   One afternoon, I was delayed at the Hanna, Alberta airport, browsing through a Flying magazine dated 1995.  Apparently back then, airliner manufacturers were considering building larger jets, capable of carrying up to a thousand seats.   I came across a report that researchers in Germany were suggesting manufacturers look at geese for some guidance.  By flying in echelon formation, geese use less energy than they would flying alone.  So rather than building a super jumbo behemoth, designers reasoned that in a formation of two smaller planes, the one flying about five wingspans aft and laterally offset, would use about 10 percent less fuel than the leader.

The next obvious consideration surrounds the danger of flying in formation taken to a new extreme with airliners packed with people.  No problem,  the article continued.  Fly-by-wire commands input by the crew of the lead aircraft could be transmitted automatically to the number two ship. I wonder why the Snowbirds haven’t thought of that yet.

Unless this has all been a hushed up, top secret developing program, I don’t think it’s gone anywhere past the idea stage.  Not that I’ve heard anyway.  Again, this was a 1995 magazine report. 

There’s no doubt that nature does most things much better than man, another example found in AOPA PILOT magazine that same afternoon.  In a 2005 issue, an article reports that scientists have wind-tunnel tested models of the pectoral flippers of a humpback whale and found them more efficient with better stall characteristics than anything currently in aviation. The flippers produced 8 percent more lift than a modern airplane wing, 32 percent less drag and stalled at a 40 percent steeper angle.  Just when you think you have it all figured out something better comes along, and sometimes from way out in left field.

Back to the geese for a moment.  The formation flying that they have adopted, would seem to suggest they’ve made the best of aerodynamic advantages.  Everyone in Canada is familiar with the familiar “V” they form in their migratory flights.  There was one question however, that remained unanswered about their formations  Have you ever wondered why one side of the “V” is often longer than the other?   My father offered his reasoning.  There are more geese on that side.  Simple as that.

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