Our ancestors have always looked skyward for inspiration to master heavier-than-air flight. Now, flight engineers have discovered another source of inspiration—creatures of the sea!
When you think of the marvels of flight, what creatures come to mind? Perhaps majestic birds like the eagle or falcon, whose sleek design has inspired centuries of dreamers like Leonardo DaVinci and the Wright brothers. Or perhaps—with a little prompting—you might think of bats or bumblebees. Or if you’ve watched a dinosaur movie lately, perhaps a flying reptile, such as the pterosaur. But a fish?
More than sixty species of fish can escape their watery world and glide through the air. This unusual skill enables them to escape underwater predators and cover vast distances quickly. Flight begins as these fish rapidly whip their tail back and forth and propel themselves directly out of the water. Once airborne, they can cover more than 1,300 feet (400 m), skipping across the surface at the incredible speed of 40 miles per hour (70 km/hr).1
A mechanical engineer, Haecheon Choi, became fascinated with flying fish while reading a nature book to his children. A search of the scientific literature showed him that the formal study of these amazing creatures has been very limited. So engineer Choi took up the challenge.
What special designs make this flight possible? Flying fish have large pectoral side fins that resemble wings. Choi found that a slight change in the tilt of these fins controls lift and the direction of flight. A small rear pelvic fin provides stability in flight. The total distance is increased when the fish chooses to glide just above the water surface. Apparently this bump in speed is possible because the water smooths out the air currents the fins produce, thereby reducing air resistance, or drag.
Wind tunnel experiments with fish models show that flying fish glide more efficiently than many insects and as smoothly as birds, such as hawks and wood ducks.
Choi suggests that the design of flying fish may prove useful for future airplanes. Small, low-level surveillance aircraft, in particular, might benefit by duplicating the flying fish’s efficient “ground-effect aerodynamics.” Researchers are also exploring the benefits of flexible, fin-type wings. Stay tuned for future gliding airplanes that resemble the flying fish.
Fossils of flying fish resemble modern-day varieties, and this is no surprise.2 Sea life first appeared—in all its varied kinds—on Day Five of the Creation Week. Ever since, flying fish have been displaying their unique, Godgiven ability both to swim and soar.
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