A Moment of Science

Housefly Acrobatics

Wait a minute before reaching for the fly swatter to check out the incredible aeronautical feats a fly can perform with ease!

fly on wall

Photo: Greh Fox (Flickr)

Have you ever wondered how a fly executes the complex, in-flight maneuver that allows it to land upside down on the ceiling?

Next time you spot a fly buzzing around your boudoir, wait a minute before reaching for the fly swatter to check out the incredible aeronautical feats a fly can perform with ease!

To stay airborne, a fly has to flap its wings from about two to over three hundred times per second. The speed of repetitive human muscle contractions doesn’t even come close. Our muscle fibers can contract only 10 or 11 times per second at most! Flies aren’t just mechanical buzzers. Have you ever wondered how a fly executes the complex, in-flight maneuver that allows it to land upside down on the ceiling?

This isn’t just a question for lazy, fly-swatting summer afternoons. In fact, before the advent of high-speed photography, there was heated debate among scientists as to exactly how a fly flips over in order to land on a ceiling. High-speed cameras have revealed that a fly performs this feat not like a rigid airplane doing aeronautical tricks, but like a limber circus acrobat entertaining a crowd.

Here’s the sequence for the performance: first, the fly buzzes up very close to the ceiling. Then it kicks its front legs up and over its head until they touch the ceiling. Once the fly has a good foothold with its front legs, it’s a simple matter to somersault all the way over and plant its hind legs firmly on the ceiling too. Now all that’s left is for the audience to applaud, or swat!

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