Newton’s third law says that forces come in equal and opposite pairs. This means that when air exerts lift on an airplane, the airplane also exerts a downward force on the air. This is clear in the image above, which shows a an A380 prototype launched through a wall of smoke. When the model passes, air is pushed downward. The finite size of the wings also generates dramatic wingtip vortices. The high pressure air on the underside of the wings tries to slip around the wingtip to the upper surface, where the local pressure is low. This generates the spiraling vortices, which can be a significant hazard to other nearby aircraft. They are also detrimental to the airplane’s lift because they reduce the downwash of air. Most commercial aircraft today mitigate these effects using winglets which weaken the vortices’ effects. (Image credit: Nat. Geo./BBC2)


Wingtip vortices are the result of high-pressure air from beneath a wing sneaking around the end of the wing to the low-pressure area on top. They trail for long distances behind aircraft, and are, most of the time, an invisible hazard for other aircraft. If you’ve ever sat in a line of airplanes waiting to take off and wondered why there is so much time between subsequent take-offs, wingtip vortices are the answer. The larger a plane, the stronger its vortices are and the greater their effect on a smaller craft. Much of the time between planes taking off (or landing) is to allow the vortices to dissipate so that subsequent aircraft don’t encounter the wake turbulence of their predecessor. Crossing the wake of another plane can cause an unexpected roll that pilots may not be able to safely correct, a factor that’s contributed to major crashes in the past. (Image credits: flugsnug, source video; submitted by entropy-perturbation)


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.


In flight, airplane wings produce dramatic wingtip vortices. These vortices reduce the amount of lift a 3D wing produces relative to a 2D one. How much they influence the lift depends on both the strength and proximity of the vortex. The stronger and closer it is, the more detrimental its effect. One way airplane designers reduce the effects of wingtip vortices is by adding an extra section, called a winglet, to the end of the wing. Among other effects, the winglet moves the wingtip vortex further away from the main wing, which reduces its influence and allows the airplane to regain some of the lift that would otherwise be lost. (Image credits: A. Wielandt et al., source)

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)