drag reduction


Wingtip devices are usually intended to improve the efficiency of fixed-wing aircraft. 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. Wingtip devices can also improve aircraft handling characteristics and enhance safety for following aircraft. Such devices increase the effective aspect ratio of a wing without materially increasing the wingspan. An extension of span would lower lift-induced drag, but would increase parasitic drag and would require boosting the strength and weight of the wing. At some point, there is no net benefit from further increased span. There may also be operational considerations that limit the allowable wingspan (e.g., available width at airport gates).

Wingtip devices increase the lift generated at the wingtip (by smoothing the airflow across the upper wing near the tip) and reduce the lift-induced drag caused by wingtip vortices, improving lift-to-drag ratio. This increases fuel efficiency in powered aircraft and increases cross-country speed in gliders, in both cases increasing range. U.S. Air Force studies indicate that a given improvement in fuel efficiency correlates directly with the causal increase in the aircraft’s lift-to-drag ratio.

The term “winglet” was previously used to describe an additional lifting surface on an aircraft, e.g., a short section between wheels on fixed undercarriage. Richard Whitcomb’s research in the 1970s at NASA first used winglet with its modern meaning referring to near-vertical extension of the wing tips. The upward angle (or cant) of the winglet, its inward or outward angle (or toe), as well as its size and shape are critical for correct performance and are unique in each application. The wingtip vortex, which rotates around from below the wing, strikes the cambered surface of the winglet, generating a force that angles inward and slightly forward, analogous to a sailboat sailing close hauled. The winglet converts some of the otherwise-wasted energy in the wingtip vortex to an apparent thrust. This small contribution can be worthwhile over the aircraft’s lifetime, provided the benefit offsets the cost of installing and maintaining the winglets.

Another potential benefit of winglets is that they reduce the strength of wingtip vortices, which trail behind the plane and pose a hazard to other aircraft. Minimum spacing requirements between aircraft operations at airports is largely dictated by these factors. Aircraft are classified by weight (e.g. “Light,” “Heavy,” etc.) because the vortex strength grows with the aircraft lift coefficient, and thus, the associated turbulence is greatest at low speed and high weight.

The drag reduction permitted by winglets can also reduce the required takeoff distance.

Winglets and wing fences also increase efficiency by reducing vortex interference with laminar airflow near the tips of the wing, by ‘moving’ the confluence of low-pressure (over wing) and high-pressure (under wing) air away from the surface of the wing. Wingtip vortices create turbulence, originating at the leading edge of the wingtip and propagating backwards and inboard. This turbulence 'delaminates’ the airflow over a small triangular section of the outboard wing, which destroys lift in that area. The fence/winglet drives the area where the vortex forms upward away from the wing surface, since the center of the resulting vortex is now at the tip of the winglet.

Aircraft such as the Airbus A340 and the Boeing 747-400 use winglets. Other designs such as some versions of the Boeing 777 and the Boeing 747-8 omit them in favor of raked wingtips. Large winglets such as those seen on Boeing 737 aircraft equipped with blended winglets are most useful during short-distance flights, where increased climb performance offsets increased drag.

Like many sharks, the great hammerhead shark is negatively buoyant, meaning that, absent other forces, it would sink in water. To compensate, sharks generate lift with their pectoral (side) fins to offset their weight. Their dorsal (top) fin is used to generate the horizontal forces needed for control and turning. However, both captive and wild great hammerhead sharks tend to swim rolled partway onto their sides. The reason for this unusual behavior is hydrodynamic – it is more efficient for the shark. Unlike other species, the great hammerhead has a dorsal fin that is longer than its pectoral fins. By tipping sideways, the shark effectively creates a larger lifting span and is able to induce less drag than when it swims upright. Models show that swimming on their sides requires ~8% less energy than swimming upright! (Image credit: N. Payne et al., source)


Cephalopods like the octopus or squid are some of the fastest marine creatures, able to accelerate to many body lengths per second by jetting water behind them. Part of what makes its high speed achievable, though, is the way the animal changes its shape. In general, drag forces are proportional to the square of velocity, meaning that doubling the velocity increases the drag by a factor of four. The energy necessary to overcome such large drag increases generally prevents marine animals from going very fast (compared to those of us used to moving through air!) But drag is also proportional to frontal area. Like the bio-inspired rocket in the video above, jetting cephalopods begin their acceleration from a bulbous shape and then shrink their exposed area as they accelerate. Not only does this shape change help mitigate increases in drag due to velocity, it prevents flow from separating around the animal, shielding it from more drag. The result is incredible acceleration using only a simple jet for thrust. For example, the octopus-like rocket in the video above reaches velocities of more than ten body lengths per second in less than a second. (Video credit: G. Weymouth et al.)