Reader Questions

Reader Question: Winglets

Reader tvargo writes:

First off… love your blog! I know very little about physics, but love reading about it. Could you potentially explain what the little upturned ends of wings do? looking on wikipedia is see this: “There are several types of wingtip devices, and although they function in different manners, the intended effect is always to reduce the aircraft’s drag by partial recovery of the tip vortex energy.” huh?

Thanks! That’s a great question. Winglets are very common, especially on commercial airliners. To understand what they do, it’s helpful to first think about a winglet-less airplane wing. Each section of the wing produces lift. For a uniform, infinite wing, the lift produced at each spanwise location would be the same. In reality, though, wings are finite and wingtip vortices at their ends distort the flow. The vortices’ upward flow around the ends of the wing reduces the lift produced at the wing’s outermost sections, making the finite wing less efficient (though obviously more practical) than an infinite wing.

Adding a winglet modifies the end conditions, both by redirecting the wingtip vortices away from the underside of the wing and by reducing the strength of the vortex. Both actions cause the winglet-equipped wing to produce more lift near the outboard ends than a wing without winglets.

But why, you might ask, does the Wikipedia explanation talk about reducing drag? Since a finite wing produces less lift than an infinite one, finite wings must be flown at a higher angle of attack to produce equivalent lift. Increasing the angle of attack also increases drag on the wing. (If you’ve ever stuck a tilted hand out a car window at speed, then you’re familiar with this effect.) Because the winglet recovers some of the lift that would otherwise be lost, it allows the wing to be flown at a lower angle of attack, thereby reducing the drag. Thus, overall, adding winglets improves a wing’s efficiency. (Photo credit: C. Castro)

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