V-formation plane flights – stop goosing about!

Aircraft flying in geese-like formations have been cited as the “answer to the aviation crisis”. Is this a glimmer of optimism following the despair in Copenhagen, or another unrealistic method to control climate change?

2009 has been a tumultuous year for the aviation industry, and according to analysts, airlines have suffered losses of approximately $9 billion this year (wharton.universia.net). Facing persistent criticism for its negative impact on the environment and being a leading contributor to global warming, the industry announced commitments for serious emission cuts, with airline bosses desperately competing to find a solution.

But all the negativity surrounding airplanes and the planet has been lifted by a hint of optimism, as scientists from California claim to have come up with the answer to cut plane fuel consumption. Research carried out by the scientists shows that by flying aircraft in flocks which mimic the flight formation of migrating birds like geese, plane travel will become more efficient and dramatically reduce the amount of harmful gases airplanes pump into the atmosphere.

The experiment undertaken by a group of scientists at Stanford University, California, is based on research performed almost 100 years ago by Carl Wieselsberger, a German scientist who, in 1914, suggested that birds flying together in V-formations use far less energy than birds flying on their own.

Applying this principle to airplanes sounds logical, and aviation engineers from Stanford University modeled an experiment on three planes flying from the US to London in a V-formation. After completing the hypothetical experiment, the scientists insist that each aircraft would use 15 percent less fuel, with Professor Ilan Kroo, the engineer leading the experiment, believing that formation flights could be the answer to reducing the carbon emissions of passenger planes.


Vladimir Kremlev for RT (Click to enlarge)
Although enabling flocks of passenger planes to fly in harmony like geese remains an arguably unlikely scenario. Chris Whitehead, a former hang glider pilot and teacher of the sport, remains skeptical of the California-based research. The local record holder and ex-Peak District team captain told RT that he specifically remembers how seagulls benefited by flying behind his glider, but other pilots coming in close proximity to one another would experience horrendous turbulence.

“Flying off the cliffs on the south coast of England, the gulls would nearly always accompany us. I don’t know whether the birds were just inquisitive or lazy but they would effortlessly soar behind us for miles,” said Whitehead.

“The same could not be said about other pilots, as when you came too close to another glider, you would usually feel the wash and be forced down. I can only feel that flying aeroplanes together in groups would be equally as dangerous and should be left to the experts, the birds,” the ex-flier continued.

The precision needed to coordinate just one aircraft to reach its destination safely is difficult enough, and air traffic controllers would be given a considerably larger headache if they had to coordinate the safe arrival of 25 airplanes together. It also remains unproven as to how different weather conditions may affect V-formation flight efficiency. Also, the nervier passengers may be inclined to feel a little more anxious watching other planes fly just a few feet away from their window. Angie Wainwright from Manchester is one such passenger who is so nervous about being on an airplane that she has to have several double brandies before she can embark. Mrs. Wainwright told RT:

“The idea is ridiculous. I panic when the plane suffers the slightest bit of turbulence and think it is about to take a nosedive. If it was surrounded by 25 other aircraft, you can guarantee I would never fly again.”

Lucy Mathers, a flight attendant with a budget airline, also believes Kroo's idea will remain a hypothetical one due to its impracticalities. She told RT:

“It is a good idea to try and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide planes spurt out and combat climate change, but I don't reckon it will never take off. Although seeing my colleagues on another aircraft juts a few meters away would be a laugh.”

Whilst this latest attempt to protect our planet from man-made destruction may remain a hypothetical mind-boggler, perhaps if the bigwigs who attended the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit this month had arrived with their airplanes in V-formations, mimicking migrating geese, they would have not been so quickly condemned for their oversized carbon footprints and hypocrisy.

Gabrielle Pickard for RT