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THE ULTIMATE FLYING MACHINE

By: Tuvia Cohen



We are a spoiled generation. There’s no use denying it – it’s true. We have never had it so good, and yet we still find cause to complain. In the not-too-distant past, if a person wished to travel to Australia from Europe, the ocean liner was the only available mode of transport. Often, a journey lasted several weeks and travelers never complaining if the voyage lasted an extra day. In today’s sophisticated age, however, if their flights are delayed by one hour, passengers feel aggrieved.

The invention of the jet engine has enabled travel time to decrease exponentially. In times gone by, when the crossing of the Atlantic took weeks, when the crew were as much in danger of starvation as they were of being shipwrecked, it was unfathomable that in the year 1974, just 33 years after the advent of jet aircraft, U.S. Major James Sullivan would be able to cross
the same stretch of water in just in less than two hours. But that is exactly what occurred! His exact time was one hour, 54 minutes and 56.4 seconds andhis average speed was 1806 mph.

Despite the increased speed of air travel, or rather because of it, the maneuverability of aircraft has been much reduced. A pilot in the First World War, flying a Sopwith Camel at about 100 mph, needed to make no less thanan 80-yard turn to evade the machine guns of a German Fokker. Today’s jet fighters fly at over 1500 mph, and their turning circles are so large – about 15 miles – that it is difficult for the opposing pilots to see each other at all.

There is in the world today a flying machine that can outperform and outshine any contemporary jet aircraft. Its maneuverability is unsurpassed. It can make a full 180- degree change in direction in a split second. It can detect hostile enemy action without the use of radar, and it can successfully land on a vertical surface, or even upside down. This flying wonder is none other than the insect known as the fly!

The Humble Housefly

The housefly buzzes next to sunny windows, hovers hungrily over the dinner or picnic table, andis so inevitably a part of warm-weather existence that most people take their presence for granted. This is a shame, for buzzing around us is a creature that demonstrates greater technical brilliance and futuristic design than the most advanced plane we are ever likely to encounter. The fact that flies get on our nerves should not prevent us from appreciating their remarkable capabilities, all of which point to the remarkable design of Hashem.

The housefly starts life as a tiny egg, much smaller than a pinhead, after being deposited by the mother fly in any rotting refuse. Then, a series of events follows, each more breathtaking than the next. Within 24 hours, the fly hatches and appears as a transparent, legless grub. Before a day has passed, its size has so tremendously increased that its skin, which is not elastic, can no longer contain its body. The skin splits, and the grub crawls out to grow a new skin. Three times within as many days this splitting and shedding of old skins occurs. Then, on the fourthday, its transparent color changes to a dull white and it crawls away from its feeding place, to burrow deep into the ground. During its underground existence, lasting three days, there forms within its skin a striped body, six legs, two veined wings and multi-faceted eyes – a tremendous metamorphosis for so short a time. Then the pupa bursts and the adult fly emerges. Tunneling upward, it comes out into the sunlight, ready for its eight to ten weeks of adult life. Put all that into the context of a constructed aircraft, and ask yourself if such an amazing process has any parallel!

The prime concern of the housefly is food. It relishes with equal enthusiasm decaying garbage and the lumps of sugar on the kitchen table – and it flies directly from one kind offood to the other. Its entire body is covered with a tangle of fine, close-growing hairs; and similar hairs grow on its legs and feet. The fly is thus equipped with the finest of shopping bags. In addition, each foot is equipped with an adhesive pad of sticky hairs. It is by means of these hairs that the fly negotiates slippery surfaces so nimbly, and can walk upside down on ceilings; but it is also by means of these sticky pads that it picks up and transmits myriad germs. Another fascinating characteristic is the fact that houseflies do not have any chewing mechanism. Accordingly, a fly can feed on a lump of sugar only by softening it. To do this, the fly regurgitates a drop of fluid from its last-digested meal onto the sugar! Not for nothing do people saythat if you would follow a fly on its varied journeys for a day, you wouldn’t eat for a week!

Many people wonder why it is so difficult to swat a fly. It seems to be able to sense the imminent arrival of the towel from any angle. Indeed, the fly has wondrous eyesight. A typical fly has two compound eyes strategically placed at the front of its face, giving it complete all-round vision. Each eye is composed of more than 1,000 tiny eyes – six-sided facets, each with its own lens and retina. Through these compound eyes the fly sees a mass of images that together resemble a specked newspaper photograph. Each facet is stimulated successively by movement through its field of vision. This “flicker vision” enables the fly to detect even the tiniest of movements making it very difficult to catch. Since relative to its size, a man creeping up to a fly is as delicate as an elephant approaching a mouse, it is no wonder that the perceptive fly knows what’s coming and skillfully bypasses it.

Before an insect can take to the air, its body temperature has to be sufficiently elevated. Birds have an automatic mechanism for maintaining their body temperature (as do humans) but, for insects, the air temperature affects the rise and fall of their body temperature. Flies disappearmysteriously when the sun goes behind a dark cloud. Larger insects make use of the metabolic heat generated by warming up their flight muscles when they vigorously flap their wings before takeoff. The humble bumblebee is capable of flight when conditions are only a degree or two above freezing. It utilizes its specialized warming-up procedure, maintaining an internal temperature of over 86 degrees Fahrenheit. For such a tiny creature, generating so much heat requires an enormous expenditure of energy. Evenmore remarkable is its ability to uncouple its flight muscles from its wings, vibrating and warming them up without actually moving its wings at all.

If so much energy is utilized in warming up before flying, there has to be some extraordinary means of storing that energy in the fly’s body. Indeed, the insect’s thorax (the equivalent of the fuselage) contains many energy-storing tissues, of which the most notable is the wings’ minute suspension system. This is made of resilin, the most perfect elastic material known, and one which has so far evaded man’s attempts at synthesis.

In addition, insects with high-frequency wing movements have an extraordinary muscle tissue known as the fibrillarmuscle. It is the most active tissue to be found in a living organism, having the peculiar quality of automatically contracting with great rapidity after being stretched. Once an impulse from the central nervous system initiates the system, the power supply for the wings continues running on its own until another nervous impulse stops it. Hence, the muscles can contract and relax far more rapidly than the nerves can fire them. Thanks to these mechanisms, many flies, bees, and wasps are able to beat their wings at 200-250 cycles per second (one cycle bring a complete up-and-down movement). The record beater is the tiny midge (forcipomyia) that beats its wings at an incredible 1,046 cycles each second.

Before landing, most insects extend their six legs out as soon as a landing surface comes within a few body lengths of them. The legs are designed to function as efficient shock absorbers, since, unlike aircraft and some birds, insects never run forward after touchdown. They arrive at their landing spot from almost any angle without slowing down at all. On estimate, some beetles are subjected to a force of about 40 times the force of gravity when they strike an unyielding surface – a force that would cause complete disintegration of any aircraft. Yet because the landing gear of insects is so efficient, they stay intact.

Let’s not let our familiarity with the humble fly dull our appreciation of them! The fact is, they have features that outshine those of any plane. As sure as an aircraft indicates a wealth of design, the bluebottle fly, along with all its winged friends, speaks volumes about the wisdom of the Greatest Designer of all.

Tuvia Cohen is a humorist, scientist, and an accomplished author.