Like many aviators I appreciate anything that flies whether it’s a manmade machine or product of natural selection. Among insect aeronauts the dragonfly is my favorite. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t envy its ability to rapidly fly from point to point (at speeds up to 30 mph!), make directional changes to the left, right, or reverse with the alacrity that would rip the wings off most machines, and then quick-stop into a motionless hover.
What I didn’t know, until I read “Nature’s Drone, Pretty and Deadly” in The New York Times on April 1, is that dragonflies are “brutal aerial predators, and new research suggests they may well be the most brutally effective hunters in the animal kingdom.” Even more amazing, they do it using a skill all pilots should have learned from their instructors early in training. I won’t bore you with the details of the research (my wife has already suffered for you), but the dragonfly’s mastery of this skill enables them to snatch midair meals with a success rate of 95 percent.
Research attributes this amazing kill ratio to the dragonflies brain, eyes, and wings. It has “an almost human capacity for selective attention, able to focus on a single” bug among a cloud of fluttering insects. Other researchers have identified “a kind of master circuit of 16 neurons that connects the dragonfly’s brain to its flight motor center in the thorax.” In other words, this fly-by-wire insect can “track a moving target, calculate a trajectory to intercept that target, and subtly adjust its path as needed.”
Obviously, this is a skill combat pilots must hone to survive. And understanding the key visual concept that contributes greatly to the success of fighter pilots and dragonflies alike will help civilian pilots achieve the opposite outcome—avoiding a midair meeting, which more often than not happens within 5 miles of an airport the participants are flying toward or have just left.
The key is not the dragonfly’s better eyesight and field of view provided by “a pair of giant spheres each built of some 30,000 pixel-like facets that together take up pretty much the entire head,” said the article. Quoting a researcher, who said, “they have a full field of vision; they can see you when they’re flying toward you and still see you when flying away.”
Excellent vision and fly-by-wire maneuverability contribute to the dragonfly’s successful percentage of midair meals, but the essential skill is one every pilot should have learned before they soloed. Beware of things that don’t appear to be moving, warned my flight instructor. If it is another airplane, and it has a fixed position or no relative motion across the window or windshield, you and it will eventually meet in a burst of aluminum chards—unless one or the other changes their trajectory.
Flying out of Long Beach, in the busy LA Basin, I was really interested in avoiding such a meeting because I’d been close up with the unhappy outcome of a few such meetings, photographing the bits and pieces of man and machine during my my time in the Navy. Altering my course by 30 degrees was one sure way to discern whether a fixed spot on the windshield was dirt or impending disaster, my instructor taught me.
If the spot was an airplane he said, my change of course would give it relative motion across the windshield, a two-fer outcome because also averted a potential midair. And if the spot didn’t move, it was probably dirt. And when did I receive this wisdom? On my second lesson, right after I asked why my instructor was so adamant that I clean the windshield until it was spotless. –Scott Spangler, Editor