A few years ago, the silent brush of a barn owl’s wing sent Trish Nixon reeling from her porch in the still of the night. She never heard the owl, just saw its “ghostly white form float past.”
Nixon is a raptor specialist with The Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho. She often speaks about the silent flight of owls, but the porch incident spoke to her louder than words. “The owl lifted from the ground, and I didn’t hear a sound, which is why I totally lost my cool when a wing brushed against me,” she said.
The silent flight of owls has long fascinated ornithologists. No other birds fly with such stealth. Now flight engineers are looking at the unique design of owl feathers in hopes of making aircraft as quiet as possible.
Geoffrey Lilley, a professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Southampton in England, is a pioneer in the study of the owl’s silent flight and its potential applications in the aeronautics industry.
He has been working on the issue with the Quiet Aircraft Technology project within the Vehicle Systems Program at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.