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Science Nation: Fascinating Flight

3 minutes

No worries, no worries. Chukar partridge-- it's a quail-type bird. Okay. Those are tremendous, powerful wings. Oh, no... Lots of power. You can feel that.

(male narrator) From birth, ground birds must scramble to get away from predators. Biologist Ken Dial analyzes in a amazing detail the mechanics of their wing and leg movements.

(Dial) Baby birds are striving to move to a safe place using forelimbs and hind limbs in any way they can, and with these little wings, they're able to accomplish very important behaviors, that is to get to a safe place, to live to see tomorrow.

(narrator) That technique is called wing-assisted incline running. Many species use it to gain traction in a mad dash to get away.

(Dial) Everyone we've looked at performs this behavior.

(narrator) With support from the National Science Foundation, Dial's team at the University of Montana Flight Lab use X-rays and high-speed video to understand bird flight mechanics.

(Dial) We're going from the skeleton to the muscles, to the feather development.

(narrator) They even go back in time.

(Dial) We're bringing the skeleton of fossils to life.

(man) It's got an airspeed of about 22 miles per hour.

(narrator) At the lab's wind tunnel, biomechanist Bret Tobalske blends biology and physics to measure the airflow patterns around this parakeet. Lasers and thousand-frame-a-second views provide more insight. The upstroke we're watching now. Sweeping down, you'll notice the feathers bending, loading up, turning around-- very complicated motion. Another application of our work is to understand how muscles perform.

(narrator) That knowledge could be used to treat human muscle disorders or aid in designing safer aircraft. Check all flight surfaces.

(narrator) Dial is an accomplished pilot, yet the power and flexibility of birds wings still intrigue him. The ah-ha moments for me are when I'm piloting and realize I'm looking at 10 gauges allowing me to fly steady, and I'm amazed at how a bird does the same thing.

(narrator) Humans, he says, can only dream about some of their aerobatic maneuvers. For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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Biologist Ken Dial has documented in extraordinary detail how birds are put together and the mechanics of how they take to the air. With support from the National Science Foundation, Dial and his team at the University of Montana Flight Lab use x-rays and high speed video to better understand the mechanics of bird flight. Dial’s more than 2,000 flight hours as a pilot in a wide range of aircraft adds another dimension to his research. Perhaps, by mimicking what birds have learned over millions of years, aircraft wings could change shape to accommodate both slow and fast flight, or a helicopter propeller’s shape might be altered to be more efficient.

Media Details

Runtime: 3 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 2
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 3
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 4
4 minutes
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Episode 5
4 minutes
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Episode 9
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Science Nation
Episode 10
4 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12