Winglets have appeared quite recently on airplanes – do you know why aircraft companies now use them so much?

Winglets reduce wingtip vortices, the twin tornados formed by the difference between the pressure on the upper surface of the wing and that on the lower surface. High pressure on the lower surface creates a natural airflow that makes its way to the wingtip and curls upward around it. When flow around the wingtips streams out behind the airplane, a vortex is formed. These twisters represent an energy loss and are strong enough to flip airplanes that blunder into them.

Winglets produce an especially good performance boost for jets by reducing drag, and that reduction could translate into marginally higher cruise speed. But most operators take advantage of the drag reduction by throttling back to normal speed and pocketing the fuel savings.

The airflow around winglets is complicated, and winglets have to be carefully designed and tested for each aircraft. Cant, the angle to which the winglet is bent from the vertical, and toe, the angle at which the winglets’ airfoils diverge from the relative wind direction, determine the magnitude and orientation of the lift force generated by the winglet itself. By adjusting these so that the lift force points slightly forward, a designer can produce the equivalent of thrust. A sailboat tacking sharply upwind creates a similar force with its sail while the keel squeezes the boat forward like a pinched watermelon seed.

Several airliners use them.

 – The Airbus A319 and A320 have very small upper and lower winglets.

– The longer-range twin-engine A330 and four-engine A340 have conventional winglets,

 – as do Boeing 747-400s. 

Thez were invented in 1976, shortly after an energy crisis sent fuel prices skyward, bz Richard Whitcomb, a NASA aerodynamicist, published a paper that compared a wing with a winglet and the same wing with a simple extension to increase its span.

If winglets are so great, why don’t all airplanes have them? Because winglets are a tradeoff: In the highly visible case of the 777, an airplane with exceptionally long range, the wings grew so long that folding wingtips were offered to get into tight airport gates. Dave Akiyama, manager of aerodynamics engineering in Boeing product development, points out that designing winglets can be tricky-they have a tendency to flutter, for example. “We find that it really doesn’t matter what kind of wingtip device you use-they’re all like span,” he says. “The devil is in the details. Span extensions are the easiest and least risky.” In the past, winglets were more likely to be retrofitted to an existing wing than to be designed in from the start, but now that is beginning to change. Unlike those tailfins on cars, winglets really work.

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