In addition to full-scale wings, aircraft have a smaller set of wings known as “winglets.” The winglets extend off the end of the aircraft’s wings at an upward or downward angle as a means of increasing efficiency. Winglets function to decrease drag and can decrease fuel consumption by up to 4%. The ability to identify and understand how airplane winglets work is crucial to forming a more precise working knowledge of aeronautics, so the following blog will provide an overview for your benefit.
The predecessor of modern winglets, “wing end-plates” were patented in 1897 as a means of emulating the lift generated by birds’ wing tips. About a century later, in the 1980s, rising concern about oil prices pushed increased research into the feasibility of winglets, leading them to become a staple of the aircraft industry. Winglets have played critical roles in various flights including that of NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
, a specially modified Boeing 747. NASA’s testing proved that winglets increase efficiency by calming the small vortices of air, which form on wingtips as the airplane cruises in level flight. This is separate from the function of wing fences, those of which are flat plates attached to the top surface of the wing and designed to avoid stalling.
The two main categories of winglets are upward facing and downward facing, both of which can turn to become perpendicular to the wing in opposite directions. Upward facing winglets lift to a maximum of 90 degrees, but typically rest at a lesser angle. This is the more popular of the two designs, and it is rare to find a passenger jet without them. Upward facing winglets generate additional lift to reduce fuel consumption. In flight, these winglets also prevent the air pressure
above and below the wing from mixing. This not only eliminates the vortices that tend to form on the tip and create drag, but it also converts a certain percentage of this swirling air into thrust.
On the other hand, downward facing winglets, or “drooped wingtips
,” point in the opposite direction, but they perform essentially the same function. Initially, they were implemented in German aircraft as a means of counteracting the aircraft’s tendency to “Dutch roll,” a frustrating combination of uncontrollable yaw and rolling. A more modern design referred to as Hoerner tips can be observed on gliders, sport planes, homebuilts, and light,experimental aircraft.
In addition to these traditional designs, the latest innovation in winglet technology
are blended winglets. These were first introduced by Aviation Partners in 1993, and they are more smoothly integrated into the wing design than other winglets with a sloping area that creates less drag. Moving forward, we might begin to see a more advanced blended winglet design known as spiroids integrated into commercial jet designs.
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