In a Bid to Cut Fuel Costs, Air Force Takes Flying Lessons From Birds

Who better to learn flying from than our feathered friends?

Taking a cue from geese, the Air Force is considering utilizing the birds' formation to save on fuel costs.

"People have been looking at how can we fly like birds probably since the earliest stages of aviation," Donald Erbschloe, chief scientist at the Air Force's Air Mobility Command, told Foreign Policy.

Known as vortex surfing, a bird-like positioning of multiple aircrafts would take advantage of tail wind to expend less energy. The technique is commonly used by Nascar drivers and Tour de France cyclists to create a low-pressure vortex to capture the energy of the racer in front of them. With jets, the trailing formation could save as much as 10% to 20% in fuel costs, which totaled more than $9 billion in 2012.

The concept was tested in the fall and could take three years to implement in the Air Mobility Command, according to officials. This isn't the first time the Air Force has been inspired by nature's creatures. It has also funded research to create insect-sized vehicles for the military.

[Image: Flickr user bobosh_t]

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  • davidmhoffman

    This article is incorrect. In auto racing you use drafting by getting directly behind the vehicle in front at a short distance. The lead vehicle has to use more horsepower to move air out of the way, while the trailing vehicles use less energy to deal with aerodynamic drag.  A car staying at at position to the side and aft of the vehicle ahead is buffeted by turbulent airflow and would use more fuel to hold the same velocity.

    The birds are actually using an echelon formation:a. A formation of troops in which each unit is positioned successively to the left or right of the rear unit to form an oblique or step-like line.b. A flight formation or arrangement of craft in this manner.
    There are limitations on using such a formation.  Holding such precise positioning would not be possible using today's synchronized autopilot systems.  They are good, but not that good. There is an increased chance of mid-air collision. 

    Part of the problem was wishful thinking about the USAF continuing to have the same rapid pace of of aircraft replacements as they did between 1946 and 1976.  That pace was significantly reduced.  The USAF was offered fuel saving upgrades to existing aircraft, but they were not funded at the time.  For example, it was known after the USA's involvement in the Vietnam War ended that the B-52 would not be able to penetrate the USSR's air defenses. The B-52 would need to be used in the stand off attack role to survive.  There were proposals to replace the eight relatively fuel inefficient turbojets or turbofans with four high bypass turbofans that had better fuel efficiency. This was rejected as it increased the frontal radar cross section. The USAF was still in the wishful thinking mode about successfully countering USSR air defenses with the B-52. 

    With the upgrades in the C-5M program we are finally going to get a much lower noise signature and significantly decreased fuel consumption jet engine than the General Electric TF39 used today.

    The C-130J is more fuel efficient than the C-130E and C-130H.  As we acquire more of C-130Js and replace the older C-130s that decreases fuel consumption per ton-mile.

    One of the ironic things we are stuck with is that some of our present day aircraft are so fuel inefficient because of the demands for high subsonic airspeed in aircraft created after WW2. Had we not been so obsessed with cruising above Mach 0.8, and as close to Mach 1.0 as possible, we might have created aircraft that cruised at a much more fuel efficient Mach 0.70. or lower.