On any long journey, the view from the passenger seat is often tedious. Buildings follow strip malls, cows follow farmlands, and boredom soon sets in. Pass by an airport, however, and everyone suddenly wakes up. Eyes are strained in the hope that an airplane is taking off or landing. If an aircraft is indeed in the process of taking off, it is extremely difficult for the driver to concentrate on the road ahead – instinctively he feels the urge to watch the colossal metal structure surge upwards in a gravity-cheating exhibition of technological wonder.

There is no doubt that aircraft are fascinating. A low flying jet passing over your house will bring all the inhabitants racing to the window. A helicopter hovering overhead will turn all heads upwards, mesmerized by the sight of an enormous machine cutting through the air in a clatter of noise. A bomber screaming, scraping the tree tops, is a frightening sight, yet strangely leaves the cows munching as before, undisturbed and unperturbed. Airplanes fascinate. A photograph from 1927 shows Charles Lindbergh in his Spirit of St. Louis approaching Hendon aerodrome watched by tens of thousands of spectators. So many people enraptured by one airplane!

Aerodynamic Wonders All Around Us

Yet the greatest aerobatic display of all takes place all around us, and for the most part remains unnoticed. Lift your eyes on high, and see the wonders in the sky. If you are fortunate enough to live near the sea, take a moment to watch the seagulls with their wide wings, wheeling, soaring, gliding gracefully, sliding through the air with just the barest flick of their feathers, sometimes hovering almost at a standstill in perfect aerodynamic control.

If five small jet planes flying in close formation leave you speechless with amazement, observe a flock of starlings at dusk as they come in to land on a tree. Thousands of birds – twisting, turning, and changing direction almost as one. There are never any mid-air collisions, and no one knows how such perfect harmony is achieved. On a hot day, stop and ponder at a cloud of midges, not with irritation or repugnance, but with awe, as they weave around each other at breakneck speed in a dizzying blur, never ever hitting each other. How do they do it? As far as we know, there is no midge control-tower with little midges staring at computer-screens, guiding the airborne midges in their intricate and coordinated waltz!

If you can, watch the tiniest of all birds, the humming bird, which weighs less than seven ounces, perform feats that would make the most sophisticated helicopter green with envy. They are not only quick and agile in forward flight, but they can also fly up, down, sideways, backwards and upside down. In addition, they can hover perfectly, keeping their beaks still as they suck nectar from the flowers. As it hovers, the hummingbird’s wings twist into the shape of a propeller, and the wing tips move in a figure of eight to give perfect control. Their narrow wings beat up to 90 times each second! Most remarkable of all, the tiny bird, as with all members of the bird family, lays eggs to produce the next generation of flying wonders. No Concorde, to best of our knowledge, has ever produced diminutive offspring.

The larger the airplane, the longer the runway it needs to land or take-off. Hours of training are required to develop the expertise necessary for the pilot to land the plane safely and approach the ground at the correct angle and appropriate speed. Any sudden contact with the runway would give the passengers a nasty jolt. Bearing this in mind, give a thought to how a bird flies through the air and manages to land – even the first time – with perfect safety, on a telephone line. What technique does a fly use to land upside down on a ceiling? It is interesting to notice that before landing, most insects extend their six legs out as soon as the landing surface comes within a few body-lengths of them. The legs are constructed to function as efficient shock-absorbers, since, unlike jet planes, insects and most birds never run forward after touch-down. They arrive at their landing spot from almost any angle without slowing them down at all, alighting with a sharp jolt. Some idea of the efficiency of the landing gear is given by the estimates that some beetles are subjected to a force about 40 times that of gravity when they strike an unyielding surface – a force which would cause the complete disintegration of any aircraft!

Weight Restrictions

Anyone who has ever flown in an airplane has undoubtedly heard that dreaded word – overweight! Clothes, shoes, books, toys for the cousins, together with all the vital food supplies for friends’ children, must all be contained within 50 pounds, or else you’ll have to suffer the consequences. The reason for this cruel imposition is obvious. The heavier the aircraft, the greater the power it needs to get it off the ground – and fuel costs money. For that reason, special metals are chosen which combine minimal weight with maximum strength, and all the interior fittings of the plane must be made from the lightest materials. The consideration of minimizing the weight is an obvious precondition of airplane design. Just look at the design of birds! To reduce weight, the skeleton is remarkably light. Normally, the skeleton is the heaviest part of the body, but many of the bones of birds are honeycombed with air spaces. Should you think that this would weaken the bones, fear not, for additional strength is given by a crisscross of internal bracing struts. Airplanes, naturally, have adopted the same system.

Pause for a moment and think. However strong your desire to lose weight, how can you reduce the weight of your bones? Who taught the thousands of species of birds to design bones with air spaces?! How do you develop an air space in a bone?!

Equally astounding is a bird called a gannet, which plunge-dives into the sea from heights of up to 100 feet to catch fish. To help them survive the impact of this tremendous crash, they have spongy bone around the head and beak, and air sacs under the skin around the throat.

Birds of a feather

Although the designers of airplanes try to copy as many features of birds as possible – such as their streamlined shape, and the retractable under-carriage – one characteristic of birds has not yet been adopted, and perhaps can never be. That is the special covering with which birds have been created – feathers. Feathers are fantastic! Without them, the bird would remain grounded, cold, waterlogged and unrecognized. With them, they give the wing a large surface area which helps keep the bird in the air.

Feathers keep the bird warm by trapping a layer of air against the skin. Air is a poor conductor of heat, so this layer of air holds heat inside the body. Are you feeling cold? Go on, try to grow some feathers! Feathers keep the water out, because they are oily. Where on earth does a bird find oil? No problem – the oil is produced by a gland on the bird’s back, close to the tail, and the bird rubs its beak in this oil before it preens itself. Because the feathers are oily, water runs off the oily surface without wetting it. This is how a duck can swim in its pond for hours on end without getting cold or even wet!

Additionally, feathers enable birds to recognize each other and camouflage themselves. Thus, for example, terns and many other fish-eating sea-birds have white underparts. Unsuspecting fish cannot see them against the bright sky, as they swoop down for their supper. Other feathers help birds follow their leader. Brent Geese migrate in flocks from Siberia to Europe. To make sure they keep together and do not lose sight of one another, the birds have a white rump that is easily seen from behind in flight.

The beauty and complexity of the feather can only be fully appreciated when viewed under a microscope. The vaned feather is made up of a central shaft which is hollow up to two-thirds of its length. Beyond this point it becomes solid to increase its strength. Design! Growing out from the central shaft are hundreds of barbs. Each barb in turn carries hundreds of tiny filaments (called barbules) and these are equipped with minute hooks which interlock with the next row. The whole structure works much like a zip fastener. Or rather, the zip fastener works very much like a feather! If the web splits, the bird simply draws the feather through its beak a few times, and perfection is restored. Amazing, amazing design!

The next time a jet plane roars overhead, and you instinctively look skywards, do yourself a favor and look for the immensely superior flying marvels all around you.

Tuvia Cohen is a scientist, humorist, and an accomplished author. His bestselling books include: ‘Designer World’, ‘Our Amazing World’, and ‘Our Wondrous World.’