In 2006 the United States military retired the F-14 Tomcat (of Tom Cruise’s Top Gun fame). The uniqueness of this plane was that the shape of the wing could change during flight. The Tomcat was inspired by the studies of the wings of birds, and never did even approach what swifts (a bird) are able to do. Swifts belong to a family of birds called Apodidae which literally means “without feet” in Latin. The swift does have very small feet, but they are seldom used because feeding, courting, and sleeping all take place in the air.

The secret to the swift’s abilities lie in the design of its wing. The swift has forelimb bones that are similar to the bones in a human forearm. That section of the swift’s wing allows the flapping to get airborne that we see in virtually all birds. The swift also has wing-tip bones where we have a hand, and the angle between the hand and the forearm can be changed. By rotating the wing-tip bones the swift can vary its wing area by some 30 percent to increase its speed. It can reduce its wing area and reduce its energy usage by increasing that area.

In the swept back mode, swifts can travel at some 60 miles per hour. Scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands have determined that the most efficient flying speeds for the swifts, where least energy is used and drag and wing lift are in the best balance, is when the bird is flying at 20 miles per hour. Studies of the swifts have shown that they actually sleep while flying, and radar has shown that when they are in the sleep mode their air speed is 20 miles per hour.

Swifts got their name from their ability to travel at high speeds, make fast turns, and stay in the air for long periods of time. Human attempts at swept back wings and varying wing angles have not been too successful as yet. Natural History magazine comments “Human attempts at variable wing geometry have always been hampered by the complexity and weight associated with a system engineered from hinges.” The swift has already had all of this complexity and engineering done for it, and that makes it another amazing example of God’s design in nature. Truly we can know there is a God through the things He has made (Romans 1:20).

Source: Natural History, March 2008, page 42.


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