If you’ve ever boarded a plane and were fortunate enough to have a seat by the window, you’ve probably seen the curve at the tip of the aircraft wing. While the design certainly looks cool and sleek, there is a functional purpose for having this curve on an aircraft. These curves are called aircraft winglets and their purpose is to reduce wingtip vortex and vortices.
Winglets on an aircraft generally look the same (with the end bent upwards) but some winglets can look oval in shape. To better understand their function, you have to understand Bernoulli’s principle, which states that “the pressure of a fluid is inversely proportional to the velocity of the same in space.” What this means is that wind passes through the airfoil, or the unique shape of the wing, which causes a split in airflow. Because of the airfoil’s shape, the pressure above the wing will be less than the pressure below the wing. The more pressure there is below the wing, the greater the lift, which is how a plane is able to take flight in the first place.
However this high pressure placed below the wing causes a lot of drag or air resistance under the wing. This, in turn, causes the high pressure under the wing to flow up and over the wingtip before spinning off in a vortex. These vortices can affect the performance of the plane and also cut into fuel mileage, range, and the speed of the aircraft. Leaving a vortex trail behind you when there is another aircraft flying in the same area can be potentially dangerous for the other aircraft. Additionally, aircraft must use more fuel to combat the drag resulting from the difference in air pressure below the wing, which in turn produces higher emissions of environmentally damaging carbon dioxide.
In order to combat all of this, engineers have designed the idea of winglets, which have been used since the 1980’s and proven to reduce drag, save on fuel, limit carbon dioxide & nitrogen oxide emissions, reduce community noise, and ultimately save on costs.
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