Dragonfly Vision & Hungry Midair Meetings

By Scott Spangler on April 8th, 2013

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

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7 Responses to “Dragonfly Vision & Hungry Midair Meetings”

  1. Dennis Reiley Says:

    Awesome advice. Should be mandatory on first lessons by CFI’s and every other lesson thereafter.

  2. neil cosentino Says:

    My look-outside student training starts with all the flight instruments covered.
    It is not a stunt … it leaves a lasting impression that the instruments in the cockpit …until EDS-B is in full implementation and even then … you do not need them to fly unless your are flying big aircraft and must rotate at S2….
    I fly a few landings with the instruments covered for other learning out comes, but always, that you do not need them …the early aircraft had none and they managed…. they will not prevent a mid air … only you can prevent a mid air …

  3. William Cowdin Says:

    This same advice holds true on the ground. For example, when driving on a freeway and another auto is entering next to you on an on-ramp if the auto does not appear to move in your view then you are on a collision course.

    Either slow or speed up whichever is appropriate.

  4. Cary Alburn Says:

    I agree, both with the non-moving spot observation, and covering the instruments. A dish towel was my tool of preference when I was instructing–amazing how mesmerizing a 6-pack could be, and how much worse the 2 TV screens in modern cockpits can be. It’s hard to see and avoid if you don’t first look.

  5. Dan Schaefer Says:

    Good info. I learned this from my instructor almost on my first lesson, many years ago. Incidentally, I use the same method (changing course about 30 degrees) while piloting my boat as well – especially since on a boat, you can’t climb or dive at the last minute and you can’t guess which way the other guy will turn when too close.

  6. Mack Says:

    What’s those bugs on my windshield? Bees and skeeters for sure, anyone ever smash a dragonfly?

    How does a dragonfly get drunk?

  7. Larry M. Coleman Says:

    Neil and Cary, I train my students the same way for the same reasons, all the way up to having them do pattern work with the glass panels dimmed to black. There are some people who think I’m crazy for doing it, but it’s nice to know that if I’m crazy, I’m in good company. :) It’s not about showing off, it’s about teaching them to fly the plane by looking out the window, listening to the aircraft, and using pitch + power = performance to tell them everything they need to know about what’s going on. I’ve found that this also has the happy side effect that they tend to end up way better at spotting other airplanes than I ever was at their experience level.

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