The limits of flight performance have been estimated in tethered Drosophila melanogaster by modulating power requirements in a 'virtual reality' flight arena. At peak capacity, the flight muscles can sustain a mechanical power output of nearly 80 W kg-1 muscle mass at 24 degrees C, which is sufficient to generate forces of approximately 150% of the animal's weight. The increase in flight force above that required to support body weight is accompanied by a rise in wing velocity, brought about by an increase in stroke amplitude and a decrease in stroke frequency. Inertial costs, although greater than either profile or induced power, would be minimal with even modest amounts of elastic storage, and total mechanical power energy should be equivalent to aerodynamic power alone. Because of the large profile drag expected at low Reynolds numbers, the profile power was approximately twice the induced power at all levels of force generation. Thus, it is the cost of overcoming drag, and not the production of lift, that is the primary requirement for flight in Drosophila melanogaster. By comparing the estimated mechanical power output with respirometrically measured total power input, we determined that muscle efficiency rises with increasing force production to a maximum of 10%. This change in efficiency may reflect either increased crossbridge activation or a favorable strain regime during the production of peak forces.