Winglets, and the Effects of NASA’s Trickle-Down Innovations

Winglets, and the Effects of NASA’s Trickle-Down Innovations

NASA comes up with many innovations as they develop their spacecraft, and many of these novel technologies and paradigms ultimately find their way into civilian applications. 

Winglets are devices used on many types of aircraft to improve fuel-efficiency, and they are one of the most prominent and successful examples of NASA ingenuity being used for civilian applications.

What are winglets, anyway?

Winglets are the vertical extensions you often see attached to the ends of aircraft wings. They look cool, but their purpose is to help the plane use its fuel more efficiently, and this not only saves money on the cost of fuel, it helps the plane fly farther than it would have been able to otherwise. They are used on virtually all types of aircraft, from ultralight fliers to jumbo jets.

Essentially, wingtips reduce drag that this is pushing down on the ends of the wings (this type of drag, in particular, is called wingtip vortex, and is interesting in its own regard). The sizes and shapes of wingtips differ according to the wings they are mounted on, but they all have essentially the same design. In general, they improve the fuel mileage of an aircraft by around seven percent.

They can also increase the speed an aircraft is able to cruise at, help it ascend faster, and allow planes to reach higher altitudes. Additionally, they reduce both takeoff and landing speeds, which represents an enormous safety advantage. There are even studies that indicate that the use of winglets reduces roll rates (this translates to stability in flight).

Winglets were first used commercially on corporate-sized Lear jets, and when pilots and engineers saw how effective they were, their use became more widespread. Today, they are even used on hang gliders.

Today, winglets are frequently part of the design of new aircraft. For example, they are built into Gulfstream jets. However, winglets don’t have to be original to the construction of an aircraft. They can be retrofitted, and some companies specialize in doing this. Retrofitting is a fast-growing market because the savings in fuel costs are immediate and very noticeable.

The Testing Program

The original testing of winglets was done in the late 1970s by NASA, and this followed several years of development and wind-tunnel studies. Dr. Richard Whitcomb, who worked out of NASA Langley in Virginia, was the main developer, and his initial inspiration was a concept conceived of by a British scientist in the late 1800s.

As it became apparent how effective winglets would be, the United States Air Force and commercial airline company Boeing began working with NASA to develop them. The Air Force used a KC-135 test plane equipped with sensors and other measuring equipment to get an accurate sense of what the winglets were doing.

The results were significant. Based on drag-reduction data, the researchers concluded that winglets measurably improved the fuel economy of the aircraft they were tested on by between four and seven percent – with variance due to individual wingtip design and airframe design.

What does that mean in real life?

To put that fuel-savings into perspective, consider that your typical Boeing 737 burns about 20,000 liters of fuel over the course of a seven-hour flight (that’s a stretch for a 737, but let’s run with this example). Even a 5% reduction in fuel consumption represents a savings of 1000 liters of Jet A, which is a huge economic boon for commercial airlines as well as your own wallet, and makes flight that much kinder to the environment. 

AMI’s Role in Winglet Production

We’re always happy to plug the innovative and high-caliber work our customers do, and the products they design, produce, deliver, and maintain. 

One of our longstanding customers, Aviation Partners, Inc. is one of the global market leaders in the design and production of some truly ground-breaking advanced winglet systems. Providing both original equipment and retrofit options, the company estimates it has saved over 11 billion gallons of fuel, cumulatively, across the airframes fitted with the company’s Blended Wingtip assemblies. 


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