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Abstract

Have you ever noticed how some jet planes have small, vertical projections as the tips of the wings? They're called winglets. What are they there for?

Summary

Areas of Science
Difficulty
 
Time Required
Short (2-5 days)
Prerequisites
None
Material Availability
Readily available
Cost
Very Low (under $20)
Safety
No issues
Credits

Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies

Sources

Objective

The goal of this project is to measure the effects on flight performance when winglets are added to a paper airplane design.

Introduction

The Boeing jet in Figure 1 has winglets at the tips of its wings. Why are they there? What do they do?


Photo of a commercial airplane in flight
Figure 1. A Boeing 757 jet with winglets at the tips of the wings.

As an airplane moves through the air, the wings generate lift by creating an area of low pressure above the upper surface of the wing. The higher air pressure beneath the lower surface of the wing lifts the plane. At the tip of the wing, the high and low pressure air meet.

The air forms miniature tornadoes, called wing tip vortices that spread out behind the plane (see Figure 2, below).


Red smoke is used to show a vortex of air created behind the wing of an airplane
Figure 2. Wing tip vortices made visible behind a plane using colored smoke.

Wing tip vortices cause two problems:

  1. the turbulent airflow they create can be strong enough to flip an airplane that encounters it;
  2. they also increase the drag forces on the airplane that generates them, decreasing fuel efficiency.

While there is no way to completely eliminate the vortices, winglets help reduce their negative effects.

In this project, you will test paper airplanes built both with and without winglets and measure the effect on flight performance. When doing your background research, you should also study vertical stabilizers. In the simple designs used in this project, winglets will also function as vertical stabilizers.

Terms and Concepts

Questions

Bibliography

  • You'll definitely want to check out the Gliders section (among others) of NASA's Beginner's Guide to Aeronautics. This site is packed with useful information on the science of flight:
    NASA. (2005a). Guided Tours of the Beginner's Guide to Aeronautics, NASA, Glenn Research Center. Retrieved June 8, 2006.
  • Here are two links with alternative designs for folded paper airplanes. The second link (Palmer, 2000) has an excellent plan (PL-1, Joe's Favorite) for testing with and without winglets:
  • Here are some sources of information on winglets:

Materials and Equipment

Experimental Procedure

  1. Do your background research so that you are knowledgeable about the terms, concepts, and questions above.
  2. Start with your favorite paper airplane design. Figure 3, below, shows one popular model (see the first suggestion in the Variations section, below, for ideas on optimizing the design). This NASA link has another design you can try: How to build a paper Jet model.

    Diagram shows how to fold a sheet of paper into a paper airplane
    Figure 3. The simple, classic folded paper airplane.

  3. Using your chosen design, build several identical paper planes.
  4. Test-fly each plane at least 5 times, and measure the distance flown. Be careful to launch the planes at the same angle, and with the same amount of force each time. Note any instabilities in the flight characteristics (nose dives, rolling, turning). Optional: you can also use a stop watch to measure the flight duration. Keep track of the data in your lab notebook.
  5. Fold a small portion of each wing tip up to create equal-sized winglets on each wing, and repeat the test flights.
  6. Calculate the average flight distance for each plane, both with and without winglets.
  7. Did flight distance improve with winglets? Were there improvements in other flight characteristics?
icon scientific method

Ask an Expert

Do you have specific questions about your science project? Our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.

Variations

  • Experiment with the design of the simple folded airplane to optimize the flight characteristics before trying winglets. For example, you can shorten the plane by folding back a portion of the nose before folding up the wings (step 3 in Figure 2, above). (What effect does this have on the center of gravity? What effect does this have on the center of lift?) You can alter the surface area of the wings slightly by experimenting with exactly where to place the fold in step 4 of Figure 2. Test your designs with multiple flight tests and keep track of the results in your lab notebook. Then use your best design to see if winglets improve performance even further.
  • Experiment to find the optimal size for winglets.
  • Does it matter if you fold the winglets down or up?
  • The simple folded airplanes used in this project normally lack vertical stabilizers. Vertical stabilizers resist forces that would tend to make the plane yaw (nose moving from side to side). In this simple type of paper airplane, winglets can function as vertical stabilizers. Another type of paper airplane (made with laminated construction methods) generally does include a vertical stabilizer as part of the design. For more details, see the Science Buddies project What Makes a Good Aerodynamic Design? Test Your Ideas with High-Performance Paper Gliders. Do winglets improve the flight characteristics of high-performance paper gliders?
  • For a more advanced project on winglets using a wind tunnel, see the Science Buddies project Winglets in Wind Tunnels.

Careers

If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:

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General citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Why Winglets?" Science Buddies, 3 July 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Aero_p013/aerodynamics-hydrodynamics/why-airplanes-have-winglets. Accessed 20 May 2022.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2020, July 3). Why Winglets? Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Aero_p013/aerodynamics-hydrodynamics/why-airplanes-have-winglets


Last edit date: 2020-07-03
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