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Stability is essential to flying and is usually assumed to be especially problematic in flapping flight. If so, problems of stability may have presented a particular hurdle to the evolution of flapping flight. In spite of this, the stability of flapping flight has never been properly analysed. Here we use quasi-static and blade element approaches to analyse the stability provided by a flapping wing. By using reduced order approximations to the natural modes of motion, we show that wing beat frequencies are generally high enough compared to the natural frequencies of motion for a quasi-static approach to be valid as a first approximation. Contrary to expectations, we find that there is noting inherently destabilizing about flapping: beating the wings faster simply amplifies any existing stability or instability, and flapping can even enhance stability compared to gliding at the same air speed. This suggests that aerodynamic stability may not have been a particular hurdle in the evolution of flapping flight. Hovering animals, like hovering helicopters, are predicted to possess neutral static stability. Flapping animals, like fixed wing aircraft, are predicted to be stable in forward flight if the mean flight force acts above and/or behind the centre of gravity. In this case, the downstroke will always be stabilizing. The stabilizing contribution may be diminished by an active upstroke with a low advance ratio and more horizontal stroke plane; other forms of the upstroke may make a small positive contribution to stability. An active upstroke could, therefore, be used to lower stability and enhance manoeuvrability. Translatory mechanisms of unsteady lift production are predicted to amplify the stability predicted by a quasi-static analysis. Non-translatory mechanisms will make little or no contribution to stability. This may be one reason why flies, and other animals which rely upon non-translatory aerodynamic mechanisms, often appear inherently unstable.

Original publication




Journal article


J Theor Biol

Publication Date





351 - 370


Animals, Biophysical Phenomena, Biophysics, Birds, Flight, Animal, Models, Biological