Wingey-thingeys are more than a fashion statement

5 03 2010

21.5 Million Tons Less CO2 Emissions Winglets save 2 billion gallons of jet fuel –

Image of Blended Wingip from

Just days after my recent posting on why people don’t like scientists, now I find myself ready to kiss one.

For those of us who fly a lot and feel guilty about our carbon impact from doing so, we can thank a small technology for reducing that impact a bit.  When I first started seeing wingtips that curved up at the ends of airplane wings, I must admit that I thought they were mostly a fashion feature to make the aging airplanes look newer and sleeker.

It turns out that those little wingtips significantly improve the flying efficiency of airplanes and, according to the manufacturers, have saved 2 billion gallons of jet fuel since they were invented in the 1990s.  As more and more planes get outfitted with them, the prediction is for the savings to climb to 7 billion gallons by 2015.

How do they work?  Airplanes (and birds) are able to fly because of “lift.”  The surface of the top of a wing is longer than the bottom due to a curved design, so the air has to travel faster across the top of the wing than across the bottom to get to the other side.  That creates lower pressure above than below, resulting in the wing being pushed up.

The part I never really thought about is that the air from above and below have to meet up again.  Because the two flows are traveling at different speeds, that reunion causes turbulence (much like the family reunions we have all experienced), and turbulence causes drag.  A lot of this drag takes place at the wingtip.  Enter the Blended Winglet Technology:

Vortex dynamics, via

Photo from

Obviously we all need to do our part to save the planet.  At the same time, I recognize that I could NEVER personally save 2 billion gallons of fuel, no matter how many times I choose to bike or walk to the store.  Appropriate applications of science and technology can make some of the big changes that are necessary.  This is also a good reminder not to just focus on new technologies, but to work on improving the old stuff in the meantime.  One of the best things about these winglets is that they can be affixed to old planes, so the savings in fuel can be gotten without having to invest the money and resources in an entirely new plane and without waiting for the algae-based jet fuel that is in the works.

So if you are a scientist and you see me walking towards you down the street, look out.  I just might come up and kiss you.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala




3 responses

6 03 2010
Mike Brady

My buddy who retired from Boeing says they’re not quite as advertised. His comment

“Reality is far more complex and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the corner flow actually makes more drag. Done wrong they require heavier structure, which eats away the actual benefit.

So why do it? They might work. They look cool. They are a sales gimmick for the manufacturer and the airline. And get this, some airlines know this and buy them anyway because it gives them a place to put another logo and another light. “

6 03 2010
Mark Jordahl

Interesting – thanks for the update, Mike. Everything tends to be more complex than we want it to be, doesn’t it? At least they are trying. I do see air travel as one of the primary places where profits and environmental goals are perfectly in line. If planes can become more efficient, they are cheaper to operate and have fewer environmental impacts. I’m all for having good business returns on pro-environmental behaviors, and if someone offered me a car that got 100 miles to the gallon with the stipulation that I had to have a Nike logo on it, I’d be all over it! I’m sorry to hear the wingtips aren’t working to their full potential, but hopefully they’ll refine them over time.

Mark D. Jordahl Conservation Concepts 256 775 295 126 Blog: Website:

5 03 2010

This is a great companion piece to the valid critique of “Science Speak” below. Both points are well presented and appreciated on this end.
Though we may not innovate our way entirely out of some of our current predicaments, I think it’s good to not fall into the habit of merely bashing the smart folks who can be a huge part of the solution. Thanks.

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