Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Winglets and Flight

Name: Aaron
Status: student
Grade: 6-8
Location: GA
Country: USA
Date: Fall 2011


Question:
How do winglets effect flight performance on an airplane?



Replies:
Hi Aaron,

NASA's Richard T. Whitcomb invented winglets in the early 1970s to increase the efficiency of airplane wings. Winglets function by reducing induced drag. Induced drag is an ever-present side effect of lift. If you have lift, you have induced drag. One particular source of this induced drag is wingtip vortices. A wing that is producing lift has higher pressure air below and lower pressure air above. Some of that higher pressure air wraps up around the tip of the wing to the top surface, creating a rotational flow to the air. The result is a trailing vortex of air coming from each wingtip. This vortex transfers energy to the atmosphere and takes away energy from the aircraft, resulting in increased drag and lower efficiency. The winglet helps by preventing some of the air below the wing from wrapping around to the top. The vertical (or near vertical) winglet provides an aerodynamic side load that acts to prevent the vortex from forming. Whitcomb found that an optimally designed winglet of a certain height can potentially provide twice the reduction in drag than a wing that is simply extended the same amount.

Regards, John C. Strong


Hi Aaron,

Winglets on an airplane reduce turbulence at the wing tip, resulting in less drag, a little more lift and most importantly, better fuel economy. Regards,

Bob Wilson


On an aircraft wing the wing tip area is the most inefficient area of the wing. When in motion the aircraft wing creates a higher pressure below a wing as compared to the area over the wing. This difference creates lift. However, some of the air from below the wing escapes over the wing tip diminishing the difference in pressure between the upper and lower areas and therefore reducing the lift. The winglets and droop wing tips are an attempt to reduce the amount of air moving around the wing tip and increase the efficiency of the wing.

If you visualize this motion of the air over the wing tip and project it through space as the aircraft flies, you will understand the origin of wing tip vortices. The vortices can become quite strong behind large, heavy aircraft.

Larry Krengel


When an airplane flies, the air on the top of the wing is at a lower pressure than the air under the wing, producing lift, and allowing the plane to fly. At the outer end of the wing, however, the effectiveness of the wing is reduced because the high pressure air under the wing flows around the wing tip to the lower pressure area on the top. this is what produces the spinning air that trails behind the wing tips that are know as wing tip vortices. Sometimes you can see them. Google the term wing tip vortices to see pictures of what they look like. Anyway, the process of making these vortices produces drag on the airplane. It takes energy to start the vortex spinning, and it comes from the passage of the plane through the air.

Winglets get in the way of the air coming around the wing tip. They are angled such that the air flows over the winglet at a specific angle, producing lift on the winglet in the same way that the wing itself produces lift. Because the winglet is at an angle, some of this lift is in the forward direction, and gives the plane a little bit of an extra push forward. In this way, the winglets recover some of the energy that would otherwise be wasted as drag making the vortices.

Depending on the airplane, winglets can extend the range that can be flown on a single tank of fuel by about 3 to 12 percent, which can make a big difference in an airline's fuel bill over the life of the plane.

David Brandt


Aaron -

Wings have higher air-pressure underneath and lower pressure over the top. the air is moving from front to back too fast to try to go around the front or back edge of the wing. But it does start a move to go around the end tip of the wing. It does not get very far before it passes to the rear edge and is gone, but still, that means the air underneath is thrust away from the body and the air on top is pulled towards the tail. So behind the plane, air on top and on bottom are moving in opposite directions, so they make little tornados extending backwards from each wing tip. Not making these vortices would save energy and be safer for following planes. Winglets push back in the direction opposite against each vortex, so there is less vortex trailing behind each wing tip.

You might think of them as barrier-walls at the end of the wing, so the air under the wing cannot escape around the wing-tips to the top, trying not to do its job of holding up the heavy weight of the plane. The real improvement is in the left-behind air well behind the airplane, but the general idea is about right.

Jim Swenson



Click here to return to the Engineering Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (help@newton.dep.anl.gov), or at Argonne's Educational Programs

NEWTON AND ASK A SCIENTIST
Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory