AidSpace Blog

Insect Power

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The smallest model airplanes in the Museum collection, displayed here with inactive power sources. Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum. Photograph by Eric Long.

When a colleague of ours, the curator of the model airplane collection, Tom Dietz, passed away recently, I was reminded of the time I spoke with him about two of the Museum’s model airplanes that I find most intriguing.

Designed and built by famed aircraft modeler Frank Ehling in the 1970s, they are the smallest flying models the Museum owns. But more unusual than their size is that they are powered by flies – yes, you heard right, houseflies, the insect. Constructed from balsa wood and red tissue paper, the one-fly design has a wingspan of two inches, and the two-fly version, which features a delta-wing design, is four inches wide. In both cases, contact cement was used to attach the live powerplant to the fuselage.

The Washington Post’s 2001 obituary of Ehling described the procedure for procuring the flies: “…Ehling honed an effective technique involving cupping a fly with his hands and then hurling it to the ground to knock it unconscious. He would then dab glue on its rear end, carefully avoiding its delicate wings, and attach the fly to the plane. He also was known to capture the fly, stick it in the freezer and glue it to the wood while it was immobile from the cold.

“Either way — as the fly gained consciousness or returned to room temperature — the winged insect would lift the model plane into the air.”

Theoretically, when the fly tired from its effort to stay airborne with the additional weight and drag of the airplane, the model would then glide to the ground.

The insect-powered airplanes are not currently on public display.

Maybe you would like to build an airplane piloted by a fly. Many kits (flies not included) are available online and you can find them by googling “fly-powered airplane.”

To learn more about the Museum’s unparalleled model aircraft collection, check out the book, On Miniature Wings: Model Aircraft of the National Air and Space Museum, by Thomas J. Dietz, with photographs by Eric Long.

Kathleen Hanser is a Writer-Editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum.

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9 thoughts on “Insect Power

  1. When I was a kid, I saw these on display and thought they were the best thing ever. I went home and made my own out of similar materials, and guess what: they worked!

    That’s why I love the Air & Space.

  2. I think larger insects such as dragonflies would have a much more spectacular effect when flying these miniature planes.

  3. I saw the same thing when I was a kid, and my brother and I built a larger sized model plane and glued a pigeon to the fuselage. It worked like a charm but the bird flew away and took our model. Then my dad found out what we did and we got in trouble for animal cruelty. We didn’t tell him about the cat powered tricyle.

  4. It’s amazing to me that we cant just marvel at the way these little insects fly without having to end their normal life, short as it is, by gluing it permanently to some big man-made load. Don’t come hurling DDT styled responses about disease, etc. – I get it. But dooming insects like this for fun just seems wrong. And I used to love killing them when I was young. I am not being a hypocrite, I’ve just grown. I will still kill them, but I will not subject them to torture for my own entertainment. I have, however, strapped MYSELF to a wing, and hurled myself off a mountaintop to enjoy free flight first-hand. THERE’s the JOY! THERE’s the ENTERTAINMENT! Go hang glide.

  5. A friend Dwane Schnetler in Pullman Washington was in high school during WW2 and he was an active model airplane builder. He captured large horseflies in a bottle which was put in the refrigerator. Small microfilm covered models which would fit in a farmer match box where equipped with horsefly motors and kept cold then taken to high school and released during study hall. the beauty of this was that the erratic twisting and turning of the flight path gave the teacher no clue as to who had launched the plane. A good horsefly was a least 5 minutes of entertainment in the high ceiling room and some made it much longer before descending to where the teacher could could destroy the enemy aircraft.

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  7. Still fascinated by flight as an adult these stories bring back memories of my youth. Seemed there was always one girl in class who had really long blond hair, after getting a single hair by whatever means worked my pals and I would catch a fly, those shiny greenish-blue ones were the best,we would then gently tie a knot/noose around the flies head,caution too tight and off goes the head,and instantly we had a control line airplane which were popular in those days,radio control was unheard of we still laugh about those carefree days….

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