This simple NASA discovery helps the airline industry save billions every year!
If you have booked an airplane ticket lately, you know that prices are sky-rocketing. There’s the increased price of fuel and the additional fees if you plan to travel with luggage, not to mention the increasingly *cozy* seating once onboard. However, it could be worse.
During the 1973 oil crisis, NASA’s Aircraft Energy Efficiency (ACEE) program looked for ways to conserve energy in aviation. Engineers considered ways to improve rocket aerodynamics.
The aerodynamics of an object are determined by lift and drag. Simply put, “lift” is what enables a plane to fly; it is created by unequal pressure on a wing as air flows around it. Drag is the resistance encountered as the object moves through the air. A significant source of drag occurs from the pressure under the plane’s wings which flows over the wing tip and then spins off in a vortex. These can be so powerful that they can disrupt aircrafts flying too closely to one another—one of the reasons why air traffic control is so careful about allowing adequate intervals between airplane take offs.
Richard Whitcomb, an aeronautical engineer at Langley Research Center, discovered that adding a vertical device to the tip of the wing, which he called a “winglet,” could diminish the wingtip vortices, thereby diminishing drag. This seemingly simple winglet design is now popular around the world.
Aviation Partners Boeing announced in 2010 that the winglet technology had globally saved 2 billion gallons of jet fuel and predicted by the end of 2014 there will be fuel savings of 5 billion gallons. So the next time you grumble about the price of flying, just know that it would be worse without the little winglet that saves big money.