A variety of sources detailing the Wright brothers’ research methods and conclusions prior to the successful first powered flight note their study of birds.
From that study, they observed and identified the ways soaring birds changed their wings’ shape to control the flight path. That data led to conceiving and implementing wing warping, mimicking the birds they observed.
Never mind that wing warping isn’t as efficient or mechanically simple as ailerons, flaps, and other devices humans now use to change a fixed wing’s shape. The important part is the Wrights observed how birds established and maintained control, and transferred that knowledge to a mechanical object.
I’ve had the opportunity to observe a great many birds over the past few years, too. The view from my back porch features enough water to attract several species, each of which has a different reason to be there.
Some of the things I’ve observed involve the ways birds deal with the same kinds of challenges you and I encounter in our own everyday flying.
One season, I put out the Thanksgiving leftovers to see what would happen. I’d barely walked back to the house before the first turkey vulture started circling. By the time I made it to my favorite vantage point, several had landed. As the first few established a for-real pecking order, others began arriving, gliding right over my head.The faint wooshing sound the vultures made spoke volumes about the lift being generated as they glided to a landing, using wingtip feathers to change heading and bank in the glide. Then they literally flared to a landing, smoothly increasing angle of attack to stall just above their chosen touchdown point. And they occasionally overshot or made go-arounds when conditions didn’t work out as they planned.
All in all, practical demonstrations of how to execute a landing approach, and what to do when things don’t work out as planned, presented by experts.
Other birds include Ospreys and red-shouldered hawks, which dive from their perches in the surrounding trees and splash down into the water, grabbing prey with their talons. Then it gets interesting.
Heaving themselves upward from the water, they frantically add thrust to get into ground effect. Once everything more or less is dry, including lunch, they stay low while accelerating in ground — err — water effect.
Often the result is an attempted takeoff beyond their gross weight, though, and they’re forced to jettison their cargo and make another attempt.
My favorites are the hawks with a largish fish forced to make two or three circles to gain enough speed and altitude to avoid obstructions. They eventually fly off to enjoy their hard-won meal, not unlike the rest of us for a $100 hamburger. They do seem to work harder for it, though.
And then there’s a sandhill crane I’ll call Wilbur. Wilbur was hatched in the spring of 2015 by his attentive mother and father from their nest on a small island. Once he was old enough, his parents taught him to swim the 20 yards to shore and all three made daily forays out into the world.
At first, he needed active encouragement, but as his education progressed, he could get in and out of the water by himself, and was only a little slower at swimming back and forth to the island than his parents.
Soon, the time came for Wilbur to learn flying. I happened to be watching one afternoon as mom and dad basically abandoned him on the shore upon their return from the day’s outing. The clear message was he should fly to the island for the first time, where his parents waited expectantly. As far as I know, it was Wilbur’s first attempted takeoff.
Like a student pilot facing a first solo, there was obvious anxiety, both on his part and his parents. They watched attentively from the island as he reluctantly paced in a circle, checking his controls and for arriving traffic. Then came the big moment: He started running.
At what he thought was the appropriate airspeed, he spread his stubby wings and started flapping, bounced a couple of times, wobbled a bit about his roll axis and…crashed back down, rolling up into a ball at the end of the runway.
It was ugly. If it had been an aluminum airplane, we’d soon be drinking canned beer out of what the insurance company sold for scrap. If it had been a Boeing or an Airbus, CNN would have put up a commemorative logo and abandoned its regular programming for the weekend. The NTSB would have sent a go-team. It was that bad.
I’d have felt sorry for the little guy, but I was pointing and laughing too hard.
Mom and dad flapped their wings a couple of times to arrive at his side. They checked him over, prodded him to his feet and they all swam back to the nest. The day’s lesson was over.
I missed the rest of Wilbur’s primary training. The next time I saw him, he was gamely trying to keep up with his more experienced parents as they taught him flight operations in the real world: Landing area inspection, standard patterns, approaches, landings, ground effect, density altitude. Before long, he was executing safe takeoffs, where the outcome never was in doubt.
He still carried too much airspeed into the flare and used too much runway when landing, but every lesson showed improvement. Eventually, the threesome flew away from the nest and I haven’t seen Wilbur since. But he taught me a few things about flying and flight training.
Perhaps most important is none of us are natural-born pilots. Even birds can get it wrong, and they need training and practice just like the rest of us.
Patient, experienced instruction always helps, too.
And when we metaphorically roll up into a ball on our first attempt at one maneuver or another, we dust ourselves off and get back to it.
With the same basic challenges to overcome, birds do it, and so can we. It just takes us a little longer, and we use more 100LL in the process.