Flying in formation

Snow geese in flight.I saw something last weekend I’d never seen off television. Tens of thousands of Snow geese covered a rather large pond near Kleinfeltersville, occasionally lifting off en masse to create a low cloud of white over the water. The birds were enroute their Arctic birthing grounds.

At rest, they virtually blanketed large portions of the pond, mostly paddling around in small circles filling the air with a sound like hundreds of playing puppies. Here and there, a pair would actually move from one side of the crowd to another, but mostly they stayed where they landed.

Then, suddenly, a huge portion of the crowd would take flight and move to a different part of the reservoir. Amazingly, they did not crash into each other. They simply lifted off, as though one of them had given a command and each in the formation knew its place. I wonder how do they do that?

I heard a possible explanation a few days ago on the radio, in which researchers explained the murmurations of starlings – those clouds of birds we see gracefully sweeping through the air, usually in fall, when they gather for migration. It seems there is no single flight commander, but rather some inter-sensory connection among the aviators through which a group of as many as six or seven seem to maintain their spacing.

Each bird is thus the reference for every bird near it. Every bird of the several hundred in the flock is surrounded by seven other birds, thus maintaining the connections and spacings in all directions. As turns one, so turns all – but here’s the thing: they do not turn in lock-wing. The formation is capable of adjusting for trees and power lines. Sometimes the flock splits in two and the now dual flight formations pass each other, sometimes in opposite direction.

Geese do not ordinarily do the murmuration thing, though what they did that day, flying in huge flocks from one place to another, seemed close. I’d like to go back and see them take off for the flight north, to see what formation they take.

I’d wager there are people working on driverless cars who would like to figure out how they do it. How birds fly among tree limbs without breaking their arms, er, wings. How geese, when rafted on a pond, fly in no apparent order from one place to another, then line up in huge v-formation for the long-distance migration.

Long before serious talk of autonomous cars, I’ve often wondered, while cocooned in my vehicle, trapped in an Interstate rush hour traffic jam, why we seem to slow to a stop, maybe creep along for a way, then suddenly speed up to 70 mph for a mile or two, and suddenly stop again. What is it that causes that stop-and-go effect?

But we are closing in on those abilities. My next car should have an autopilot I can switch on to connect with the cars around me? A car a half-mile in front of mine could apply its brakes and, almost instantly so would mine, and every vehicle between us, while I sit there chatting with a co-rider or texting with my wife at home. Actually, there likely would be no reason to slow to a sudden crawl, and so none of us would.

I enjoy driving on country roads, carving through curves and hills like the starlings sweeping among tree limbs and powerlines. But on so-called limited-access highways, where everyone is going in the same direction, stuck between concrete jersey barriers too high to see into passing pastures and streams, I’ll take a tip from the geese. Line up, turn on autopilot, relax and follow the leader.

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