Pilot error is the number one cause of plane crashes, accounting for just over 50% of total accidents, according to statistics dating back to the 1950’s up to the present. Mechanical failure comes in second, at 20% of accidents, with weather third at 12%.
Much has been done to reduce accidents due to pilot error and new designs and technology are always under development in order to reduce mechanical failures. But dealing with weather is not an area that has had a lot of research until recently.
A team at Oxford University is studying the “collapsible wings” found in eagles and other birds as a way to develop a better understanding of how to help planes cope with air turbulence. The team fitted an eagle named Cossack with a camera and flight recorder and monitored 45 flights in windy conditions, when Cossack would often collapse his wings in response to strong gusts rather than holding them out, like an aircraft.
Data from the device showed that when Cossack would experience a significant loss of lift when flying through a pocket of turbulence. He would tuck his wings in, streamlining his body to pick up speed and better respond to unpredictable wind patterns.
In a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Graham Taylor of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology wrote:
Our evidence suggests that wing-tucking (collapsing the wings) is a direct response to a substantial loss of lift that occurs when a bird flies through a pocket of atmospheric turbulence. We think that, rather like the suspension on a car, birds use this technique to damp the potentially damaging jolting caused by turbulence. Whilst we won’t see large aircraft adopting collapsible wings this kind of technique could potentially be used to keep micro air vehicles aloft even in very windy conditions.’
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