The Nearly Effortless Flight of the Albatross

The July 2013 edition of IEEE's Spectrum* magazine had a really good article on a high tech study that is being done on the manner in which an albatross manages to fly great distances and for long periods of time while rarely needing to flap its wings. As shown in the thumbnail (and in the article), an albatross performs a series of rapid climbs into very strong wind, turns, and dives leeward nearly to the water's surface, then repeats the process over and over as it makes its way to its destination. The process is called dynamic soaring. R/C soaring pilots have been doing the same sort of thing for a few years now. Obviously the albatross figured out how to fly like that long before mankind was able to mimic it, but the researchers in the article seem to not have knowledge of the R/C soaring technique. They are capturing albatrosses in their nests and attaching GPS-based sensors with data recorders to the birds' back feathers and retrieving the units when the birds return to their nests. The ultimate purpose of the study is to gather information that can be applied to the design of UAVs that can fly for extended periods and over great distances without the need for recharging or refueling.

In searching for a little extra information, I ran across quite a bit of study on the flight of the albatross for application to both model and full-size aircraft platforms. A couple good videos are posted below along with hyperlinks to articles.


Albatross in Flight
(beautiful piano music accompaniment by Stephen Jacob, "Silence in Heaven")

USAF on Dynamic Soaring

More references:

On Dynamic Soaring

Joachim L. Grenestedt

Lehigh University

Bethlehem, PA 18015, USA

Dynamic Soaring of Sailplanes over Open Fields

Pritam P. Sukumar and Michael S. Selig

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801, USA

Dynamic Soaring

Tuff Planes

Norman Mertke



Posted January 3, 2022
(updated from original post on 12, 2013)