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Vortex Surfing: How Ducks Can Save the USAF Millions of Dollars

Written by on Thursday, October 11th, 2012

We all know that ducks fly in an iconic V formation. There’s actually a very good reason for this: the duck in the front of the V hits the most wind resistance and has to do the most work. The ducks behind the lead duck can position themselves in the updraft to get additional lift without having to expend as much energy. After a while, one of the ducks in the rear will move forward so that the lead duck can get some rest.

Humans have been taking advantage of this quirk of aerodynamics for years – just ask Lance Armstrong or any NASCAR driver. Staying directly behind another cyclist or a race car allows you to save energy for the inevitable dash towards the finish line.

Jet Formation

Image source: Lexbrodies.com

The Air Force is hoping to cash in on this system, too. Known as vortex surfing, this system would theoretically allow aircraft in the rear of a formation to save gas (and thereby save tax dollars) over long flights. The USAF recently stated in a release, “Early indications from the tests promise a reduction of fuel consumption by up to 10% for the duration of a flight. Over long distances and with even a small fraction of Air Mobility Command’s average of more than 80,000 flights a year, the fuel and cost savings could reach into the millions of dollars.”

But it’s not as simple as ordering F-35 pilots to fly in a V formation. There are thousands of variables antibiotics online that can dramatically affect the efficiency of the Surfing Aircraft Vortices for Energy ($AVE) system. What is the altitude of the aircraft? How fast are they travelling? How do the aircraft’s wings interact with updraft? As you might expect, a pair of C-130s flying at maximum altitude will require a very different formation compared to a squadron of F-35s soaring through the sky at speeds approaching Mach 1.

C-17 Vortex Surfing

Image source: Af.mil

The Air Force has already made progress with $AVE experimentation in the past. The Air Force utilized an autopilot system that automatically found the best fuel efficiency for C-17 cargo aircraft, and NASA reportedly improved the fuel economy of one of its F/A-18 test aircraft by flying it within the wingtip vortex of a DC-8.

This news may not be as exciting as a new weapon proposal, but it nonetheless could have far-reaching effects on military aviation. If the USAF is correct and $AVE could cut aviation spending by millions of dollars per year, then this could fundamentally alter how pilots interact with each other in the skies. Traditional aircraft formations might give way to green, eco-friendly formations that ultimately save tax payers’ dollars. Could this be the beginning of a shift in the way that the Air Force traverses the skies? Are we on the verge of a new generation of greener flying?

If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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