NASA’s small innovation that helped aviation take off

Vortices, thrust, drag… Since the early days of aviation, overriding the aerodynamic forces that affect speed and fuel use has been significantly impacted by one small, but revolutionary, design concept – the winglet.

These vertical end-plates on a plane’s wing tips have existed since the early days of aviation. But it was NASA aerospace engineer, Dr. Richard Whitcomb, whose analysis of air flow on the wing tips of soaring birds proved that winglets significantly reduced wake vortices and improved cruising efficiency by 6-9%.

Winglet development continued at a pace through the 1970s. These devices are now commonly seen on aircraft throughout the world – helping to minimise drag and also the spacing between airport operations. More recently, Abel + Imray worked closely with Airbus on its innovative AlbatrossONE project. This focused on developing semi-aeroelastic hinged wing-tips that enable an aircraft to ‘surf” through wind gusts without transferring the bending stresses to the main wing. A proof-of-concept success story that will take the technology to an even greater level of global benefit.

The subsequent drop in fuel consumption on long-range flights thanks to winglets.