What does a plane and a goose have in common? They feel better flying together! No, wait, is that right?

The hypothesis, in The Observer’s article “Geese point way to saving airliner fuel” (27.12.2009), is that geese, can teach us more about planes. This invites a whole host of comparative corrections.

Planes, for example, are hard, made of metal, and designed to carry people huge distances. Geese, on the other hand, are soft, fluffy, and honk at people. Planes are man-made and designed to power through the sky, remorselessly, at scheduled times. Geese have evolved to be happier when migrating communally, in V-formations.

Yet, this is precisely one of the findings from Wieselsberger’s research in 1914 cited as the “brainchild” of researchers, led by Professor Kroo, at Stanford University, California. When airliners fly in V-formation, they will use less fuel, reduce CO2 emissions, and feel better. See, Stanford University is home to the best reference known to all Philosophy students everywhere – the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online. So, it seems even more remarkable that these particular researchers have made the reportedly “logical” conclusion that planes should fly in V-formation from the premise that geese have decreased heart rates and fly further in V-formations.

Now I like all ideas and experiments aiming to reduce fuel consumption and reduce CO2 emissions. And that reported 15% less fuel used up in the 3-plane-V experiment is nothing to sniff at. But I am amazed, because, well, as cute as it is to think so, planes don’t have hearts.

But, seriously, how LOGICAL is this conclusion?

Let’s let it pass that Wieselsberger’s research is from more than 100 years ago, when scientific research hadn’t had the benefits of accumulated wisdom, progress and current peer reviews. And I’ll allow the thrown-in bit of French referring to some un-dated research that manages to make the article sound a bit multi-cultural and sophisticated.

I found myself trying to picture HOW these researches actually came up with this “brainchild” – as the article so reverently puts it.

It conjures up a shonen-manga moment, doesn’t it?

Brainpowered, for example

“…Me, sir? Why of COURSE I know planes aren’t living things!”

“But just think about it sir! Think of the “great migratory journeys” that our planes do, without so much as a little solidarity and company flying with other planes. I mean, really, sir. It’s disgraceful. Geese don’t have to put up with this relentless scheduling and powering through the sky all by themselves, they have a much easier life…”

“No, I’m not saying planes feel anything! But, like, I know someone who breeds geese, and, well, bear with me sir, they eat less if they don’t have to work so hard. When their owners pet them once in a while, and let them play in fields, and chew some sugar lumps – wait, is that horses? No, I mean geese, they’re the ones that fly. Yes! Exactly! GEESE fly TOO! Isn’t that SUCH a coincidence?”

“Well, obviously, I know that planes do such “great migratory journeys” WITHOUT the need for lightening the load, of course, yes, you taught me that, sir, man-made machines are always better than animals, yes, I’ll repeat it sir, man-made machines are always better – but I just can’t help feeling sorry for them anyway! Cootchie-coo, little planes, going all that way without so much as a mating partner, a bit of romance in the sky, you know?”

“Yes, sir, I’ll go back to my friend, who breeds geese, and ask her the difference between geese and planes, sir, sorry sir.”

“So what if I wanted to be a vet when I grew up?! You never take me seriously!”

“Oh! You do? Really? Er, ok, brilliant, let’s start researching into geese! And, and, like, pelicans! And everything!”

Planes like to graze and honk at students on Nottingham Uni's campus.

And, about the cited decreased heart rate in gliding geese flying in V-formation. I find that a little worrying. If I am flying in/on the aviation equivalent to a goose, I’d rather prefer my particular goose to be fully alert and with its’ wits about it, not dreamily gliding, thank you very much.

In addition, the role of the goose at the front is to “flap” its’ wings. Now, I would very disturbed if a plane FLAPPED its’ wings. Whether it reduced fuel consumption or not. Although I’d like to see the theory that more movement reduces fuel consumption. Or is it suggesting the front plane, alone, does so, to create the technical “upwash”? And, a V-formation helps geese to glide. Now, forgive me for my very limited understanding of aviation, but don’t planes ALWAYS glide?

But, how about we let all these objections pass as, well, mere scholarly ignorance on my part.

Let’s get to the crux of the article.

Now, have I COMPLETELY missed the point, or is the suggestion here that in effort to SAVE fuel consumption, we should have MORE planes flying at once? When one plane is perfectly capable of doing a journey, we should instead co-ordinate several at once?

When we think about co-ordinating several planes taking off at exactly the same time, on the same runway, it seems a little ambitious. And the cost of building a bigger runway may, for a start, may undermine the 15% decrease in fuel consumption.

However, in the experiment, three jets left from Los Angelas, Las Vegas and San Francisco. They rendez-vous-ed over Utah. Now if one plane takes off late, or doesn’t take off at all (snow backlogs, for example) or can’t be seen/signaled, or is, say, hijacked, where does that leave the rest of the V-formation? A plane can’t exactly go swooping around looking for its’ lost partner/s.

Geese like to lay low and look into airport windows.

But, perhaps this is running before we can walk. Or, co-ordinating flight times without the planes.

How do we get enough planes?

In my long-haul air travels, I have to say I haven’t noticed much of a difference in the number of passengers, despite rumours of air travel being down in this “credit crunch”. But. Is that because there are less planes? These species of geese could be an endangered species.

Globespan in December, Japan Airlines this month, who next? And, in this environment of survival of the fittest, the remaining top performers, such as British Airways, are reducing staff, and hence reducing happy customers.

It is mentioned in the article that “the aviation industry is expected to become a major emitter of greenhouse gases”… so, does that mean it will be cut down? That is what Copenhagen was all about, right?

And if we agree with the “terrorist threat”, think about it. Given a choice between a rock and a hard place, I’d much rather see one plane hijacked, than a V-formation of terrorist attacks.

How close should these planes be when they fly together? Should they fly nose to tail?

And, does a plane that isn’t flapping, REALLY create an “upwash”?

So many unanswered questions, so little column-inches filled.

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