Built for Extreme Flight
The peregrine falcon has extraordinary maneuverability during high-speed flight, with not just its wings and tail but just about every part of its body -- every feather -- adjustable for flight control.
Like its namesakes, the United States military's new F-22 "Raptor" has unprecedented turning ability. With moveable surface areas that emulate the highly adjustable wings and tails of peregrines, the F-22 can outmaneuver any modern fighter plane.
The nostrils of falcons have a small cone of bone that is believed to regulate the amount of air that enters the nasal cavity. The distinctive bony cone prevents the formation of a partial vacuum when the birds dive at high speed, allowing air to be drawn into the nose, so that the birds can breathe freely.
Imitating a Falcon Breathing Trick
Aircraft designers have imitated the falcon's breathing trick in modern jets. Fighters that fly at supersonic speeds, like the SR-71 "Blackbird," have a falcon-like cone at the intake where air is pulled into the jet engine, to slow down the flow of air. These inlet cones maintain proper air flow and air pressure into the jet's compressors and turbines.
Heavy, But Nimble
Maneuverability is the signature talent of the American harpy eagle, that, despite its size -- females can be 18 pounds or more -- can quickly weave in and out of the trees of its forest habitats by adjusting the shape and surface area of its short yet powerful wings.
A Morphing Wing
Taking a cue from raptors like the harpy eagle and the peregrine falcon, engineers at NASA's Langley Research Center and Dryden Test Flight Center have spent the past two decades developing the radical "active aeroelastic wing," a "morphing wing" capable of changing its shape on the fly to adapt to flight conditions.
The great gray owl is a master of stealth flight, using structures on the feathers of its wings' leading edge to smooth passing air, while other features on trailing-edge feathers break up air flow and reduce noise. It's fluffy down dampens turbulence.
Master of Stealth
The F-117 "Night Hawk" has adapted owl tactics for stealth flying. Its engines and weapons are buried within the craft, and it has no afterburners, which make it extremely quiet. The F-117 also has a coating that helps reduce its radar profile to that of a small bird, and highly angled wings that help deflect radar waves.
Still the Ultimate Flying Machines
Birds remain the ultimate flying machines, in part because unlike any existing aircraft, they can fly without needing a vertical tail for stability, which mean they don't have to haul around extra weight.
On the Horizon
Researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center are trying to beat birds at their own game with the experimental X-48B, the world's first blended wing body aircraft. In other words: it has no tail. The craft, now undergoing remotely-piloted testing, may be in service in 10 to 15 years.