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Question

Why do military aircraft often fly in formation and is it in any way related to the reason birds fly in formation (conservation of energy)?
Asked by: Scott

Answer

Ah, Scott, if only we in the military flew with the efficiency of birds. The problem with military aircraft is that the shape of the wing causes a vortex to spiral off the end of the wingtip. This is because the wing is stationary and being forced through the air, instead of being flapped as a bird's wings are. Many pictures are available on the internet to show how these are formed and what they look like (usually they are invisible). These vortices however, are unstable masses of air that can cause lots of problems to fly in. Usually, due to the finesse necessary to keep one aircraft flying in a precise place relative to another, flying in tight formation uses more fuel than flying a mile or two apart. Military aircraft do not fly in formation for reasons of fuel, often they fly in formation to mutually support one another. With exceptions, every man flying has a wingman, and each of them is responsible for protecting one another and helping each other wherever they go. This especially important in cases of emergencies or where one aircraft suffers a communications failure, they can pass hand signals to each other, the aircraft with a working radio can relay intentions to the ground.
Answered by: Frank DiBonaventuro, B.S., Air Force Officer, Physics Major, The Citadel
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