Fire Life

Flying in “V” Formation

By Anne Gagliano

We often look to nature for inspiration–for examples of beauty, grace, and the miraculous. One such image that inspires me, that touches my heart and encourages me in my efforts to have a successful relationship with my firefighter husband, is this—the Flying V.

It’s that time of year, and I hear them as they pass overhead:  The migratory birds of the north are making their way south for the winter, and since we live on water, we are directly on their route. I often rush out to see them when I hear their soulful honks, and there they are, high up in the sky, forming the perfect picture of support that is an image for us all to remember, the Flying V.

You might be thinking, what in the world do migrating birds have to do with marriage or, for that matter, firefighting?  Everything, as a matter of fact. Migrating birds are incredible creatures with astonishing achievements of endurance and courage and strength (as are firefighters). The record holders fly the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back over the span of a lifetime. This distance would be amazing for the superior human being to endure; but it is absolutely mind-blowing for a little, seemingly mindless bird to do so. How do they go so far and survive?  It is by the inexplicable formation of the Flying V, which is the embodiment of teamwork and encouragement in action.

The V formation allows a bird to take advantage of the aerodynamic effects of flying behind another bird. This effect is known as “aerodynamic wash-up,” which creates an updraft from the flapping of the wings of the bird in front. The bird flying in the “up-wash” position literally gets a “free lift.”  Birds in the back of the V have been shown to have lower heart rates and flap their wings less often than the bird in the lead position.

And what about the bird in front?  There is no benefit to them and no explanation as to why they would ever willingly take this position. In fact, it is the toughest spot of all to ever be in. The lead bird meets the most resistance and tires the quickest of all, yet remarkably every V has a “volunteer” in front, leading the way and taking the hit for the team. This bird is the strongest but not necessarily the youngest. In fact, studies show that the older birds have the lowest mortality rate during migration, about 5%, while the juveniles have the highest rate—about 35%. Youth apparently isn’t what it takes to survive but rather unselfishness. The young fly all over the place and often ignore the “V.”  They are not born with the instinct to fly in formation but must learn it. Those that learn, survive. Those that don’t, perish. Migrating is tough business: Starvation, dehydration, immune compromise, and the intense physical demands take their toll.

But the V formation is brilliant, as it drastically cuts down the mortality rates of those that apply it. With it, birds can fly 71% farther than without it!  They reach their destinations quicker and easier. With teamwork at its finest, the birds rotate the “lead position” and take turns leading and following. As a result, they only fly in the front about 32% of the time, and no one has to lead the whole way. Not only do they change position in the V, but they adapt wing flaps as well to achieve maximum thrust. Each bird carefully synchronizes their flapping to that of the bird in front, creating an efficient air flow pattern for each and every bird in the V.

But the flying formation is comprised of even more than just position and flapping rhythms. Migratory birds such as the Sandhill Crane, the Northern Bald Ibis, and the Canadian Goose also communicate with each other, nonstop. Their honks and cries are a continual source of affirmation and encouragement to the leader, as he is breaking the wind resistance for the rest. If you could put their honks into words, they would sound something like this, “How ya doin’ up there, Bob? Do you need a break yet?”  If Bob says yes, then another bird shifts forward as Bob drops to the back, and the team moves ever forward without having to stop.

Within the flying V formation of the Northern Bald Ibis, an even more touching pattern exists. The Ibis actually fly in pairs among the flock. Every pair constantly looks out for each other, noting and monitoring the well-being of just that one bird. In this way, they are acutely aware of each other’s strength and even the amount of time they’ve spent leading. This extra attentiveness prevents freeloaders from taking advantage and overtiring any one bird.

Canadian Geese provide yet another, moving example of support, help, and encouragement. When one goose “falls out,” two geese “fall out with it.”  They remain with that goose to protect it from predators till it is strong enough to carry on. And the two go even further: They provide a small flying V for the weak bird, using their own bodies to break the wind resistance till they can all rejoin the bigger V. Amazing.

Are you flying in V formation, firefighter couple?  A pair within the bigger V, supporting each other directly and staying close to the bigger family?  We can go so much farther in this high-stakes game of life and death, of service and sacrifice, if we do not fly alone. Mortality rates soar for those who try to do so. Encourage one another, take turns out front, and take a break when needed. Always communicate, both to cheer and to ascertain need. And be a couple in the midst of it all; know each other better than anyone else and never let “freeloaders” take advantage. We can “go the distance” if we apply the beautiful principles and powerful example of unselfish teamwork that is ours to observe in nature’s Flying V.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 31 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.