The Biomechanics of Flight: Many Possible Solutions Looking for Problems

John H. McMasters
Ed Wells Initiative, The Boeing Company
Seattle WA 98124-2207, USA

Aeronautics in its traditional form is usually presumed to have started as a formal engineering discipline somewhere in historical time between the mythological experiments of Daedalus and his ill-fated son Icarus, and the dreams and schemes of Leonardo da Vinci during the Italian Renaissance. As is briefly reviewed in this presentation, `aeronautics’ has a far longer (though less disciplined) history extending over a period of about 300 million years, beginning with the evolution of the ability of insects to fly. With the advent of the success of the Wright brothers, technologists quickly turned their attention from the inspirations and lessons provided by natural models of flying machines to a more practical quest for increasingly dramatic improvements in speed, range and altitude performance far beyond the limits of what muscles and flapping wings could provide. Thus a field of further productive inquiry was left to a few amateur aeronauts, eccentrics and biologists. A purpose of this paper is to remind both the biomechanics and engineering communities of what has transpired during almost a century of advance in both fields of knowledge, and what is still being discovered in the light of great progress in computational and testing technology. A more important purpose is to demonstrate some of the numerous very rich sources of inspiration and motivation such multi-disciplinary explorations offer both the engineering practitioner and educator.


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