If you've ever looked out the window of a modern commercial aircraft and observed the wings, you might have noticed an interesting notch at the tip. While they might not appear to be doing much, those "winglets" have played a prominent role in increasing the efficiency of aircraft since their implementation in the early 2000s. In this blog, we will discuss the history and some nuances of the winglet.
The concept of winglets had first been proposed as early as the late 1800s, nearly a decade before the Wright brothers ever took flight. However, it was not until the 1970s, when an aeronautical engineer at NASA showed that a Boeing 707 could improve its efficiency by 6-9% with winglets, that aircraft manufacturers considered implementing such technology. Today, as aviation fuel prices teeter at an all-time high, many airlines are moving to equip the majority of their fleet with winglets.
Before understanding how winglets work to increase efficiency, one must first review the function of the wings as a whole. Wings create lift by causing a pressure differential between the air above and below the structure. The lift generated by the wing allows us to take flight, but a side effect of this action is a phenomenon called a wingtip vortex, which is swirling air above the wing that increases drag. Winglets ameliorate this occurrence by creating lift in the forward direction, thus decreasing the magnitude of the vortex.
Winglets come in various shapes and sizes, with each design having its benefits and limitations. Some of the most common winglet designs are thus explained:
Canted Winglets: This winglet design was one of the first to be implemented on modern commercial aircraft. While they can still be found on widebody Airbus aircraft, they are in the process of getting phased out and replaced with higher efficiency designs.
Blended Winglets: The aesthetically pleasing blended winglets are commonplace on several Boeing jets, including the 737, 757, and 767 models. First placed on Boeing aircraft in the 1990s, blended winglets have decreased noise during takeoff and landing, reduced carbon emissions, and saved fuel by reducing drag.
Wingtip Fences: The decidedly unique wingtip fences are Airbus' answer to the problem of wingtip vortices that emerge from the bottom of the wing. This design is very easy to notice due to its small size and sideways "V" shape.
Looking forward, scientists have proposed an impressive winglet that would be able to change shape during flight. Much like ailerons on the primary wing, the adaptable winglets would be able to sense pressure changes and shift to a superior aerodynamic shape. Similarly, Airbus' AlbatrossONE program is looking to build a next-generation aircraft with winglets that flap much like birds in nature.
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