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How do you tell a plane from a bird? The vertical tail, of course! By why can birds fly without a vertical tail, and how do planes use their vertical tails to stay in the air?

Hosted by: Stefan Chin

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Start protecting your internet experience today with 66% off a 2-year plan by using code“SCISHOW” at I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but nature is kind of awesome. That’s why so much of our technology is inspired by it, from adhesives modeled after insects to early plane wings based on birds.

But just because we try to mimic nature doesn’t mean we can do it perfectly, and birds and airplanes are a pretty good example of our limits. Take the vertical tails on most airplanes. We use them to keep our giant, metal contraptions in the air and going the right way — but birds get by fine without them.

That’s because they’re just way better at flying than we are, and for the most part, we can’t keep up. The parts of an airplane all work together to keep the plane in the sky and facing the right direction. And thanks to all kinds of invisible air currents, that isn’t as simple as it looks from your window seat.

The vertical tail’s main job is to stabilize something called yaw. Yaw measures how much the plane is pointed to the left or right of the wind — specifically, the relative wind, which is created by the plane zooming through the atmosphere at hundreds of kilometers an hour. Yaw can change in lots of situations, like during turns or in unsteady air.

And when it does, it occasionally leads to a condition called sideslip. This is where the plane has yawed, but it hasn’t completely changed its direction. Instead, it’s still mostly moving in the direction it was, only at a funny angle.

Kind of like a sports car drifting around a turn. Normally, this just leads to a little inefficiency. But if it’s not corrected, sideslip can get out of hand.

If the plane yaws too much, it starts to affect how the air flows over the wings. And if too much air flows parallel to the wings instead of perpendicular, the plane can lose lift. Which, is kind of important for keeping it in the sky!

That’s where the vertical tail comes in. See, as the plane starts to sideslip, the side of the tail will start to face into the relative wind and become more perpendicular to it. And as the wind pushes on the tail surface, it creates a force that ultimately nudges the whole plane back to face its original direction.

Birds, meanwhile, don’t have to deal with all this because they’re way better at flying than we are. Which makes sense, considering they’ve had millions of years to work on it. They don’t need vertical tails for stability because they’re constantly making fast, tiny adjustments to the shape and angle of their wings, which lets them avoid sideslip.

Right now, that's just not something we can practically or easily do with airplanes, especially passenger jets. And even though there have been some planes without vertical tails — like the B-2 stealth bomber — they come with plenty of stability challenges. Engineers are definitely working on it, but it looks like nature has one-upped us for now.

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Whether you’re online ordering a bird toy or a plane ticket, you want your private information to stay safe. With a Virtual Private Network, your information is encrypted and sent via one of NordVPNs secure servers so it’s always safe. NordVPN has nearly 5,000 super fast servers in 62 countries and they’re always adding more.

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