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Induced Drag Savings From Ground Effect and Formation Flight in Brown Pelicans


Ciné films of brown pelicans flying in formation were used to measure altitudes and wing tip spacing (WTS, distance perpendicular to the flight path between wing tips of adjacent birds at maximum span) for birds flying in ground effect, and vertical displacements and WTS for birds flying out of ground effect. Views were near coplanar with the plane of flight paths, and maximum wing span was used for scale. Induced drag savings in ground effect averaged 49% for gliding. Average WTS varied considerably with no evidence for systematic positioning near an optimum. There were also no differences in average WTS between flapping and gliding in or out of ground effect. Vertical displacements out of ground effect varied less than WTS but more than vertical displacements in ground effect. Few birds had wing beat frequencies similar to the bird ahead as would be needed to track vertical variation in trailing wing tip vortex positions. Imprecision in WTS may be due to unpredictable flow fields in ground effect, and difficulty in maintaining position under windy conditions out of ground effect.