|Time Required||Short (2-5 days)|
|Material Availability||Readily available|
|Cost||Very Low (under $20)|
AbstractHave 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?
The goal of this project is to measure the effects on flight performance when winglets are added to a paper airplane design.
Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies
- NASAexplores.com, date unknown. "Paper Winglets," NASAexplores.com, archived version available at http://www.theonlinepaperairplanemuseum.com/AZMuseum/W/WingletsPlane/WingletsPlanePlan.pdf.
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Last edit date: 2018-04-19
The Boeing jet in Figure 1 has winglets at the tips of its wings. Why are they there? What do they do?
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).
Figure 2. Wing tip vortices made visible behind a plane using colored smoke.
Wing tip vortices cause two problems:
- the turbulent airflow they create can be strong enough to flip an airplane that encounters it;
- 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
- Vertical stabilizer
- Horizontal stabilizer
- Center of lift
- Center of gravity
- Wing tip vortices
- What are the three forces acting on a glider in flight?
- What relationship between these forces is needed for stable flight?
- How will the addition of winglets affect these forces?
- How will the addition of winglets affect flight performance?
- 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 [accessed June 8, 2006] http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/airplane/guided.htm.
- 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:
- NASA, 2005b. "Folding Paper Airplane: How To Build a JET Model," NASA Glenn Research Center [accessed June 8, 2006] http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/WindTunnel/Activities/foldairplane.html.
- Palmer, J., 2000. "Joseph Palmer's Paper Airplanes," [accessed June 15, 2006] http://www.josephpalmer.com/planes/Airplane.shtml.
- Here are some sources of information on winglets:
- ScienceIQ.com, (n.d.). "Taming Twin Tornadoes," NASA Aerospace Technology Enterprise [accessed June 25th, 2013] http://www.scienceiq.com/Facts/TwinTornadoes.cfm.
- Larson, G.C., 2001. "How Things Work: Winglets," originally published in Air & Space/Smithsonian, Aug/Sep 2001, available online: https://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/how-things-work-winglets-2468375/.
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Materials and Equipment
- Paper for making airplanes
- Tape measure to measure flight distance
- An indoor location with open space to test-fly the planes
- Optional: stop watch to measure flight time
- Do your background research so that you are knowledgeable about the terms, concepts, and questions above.
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: http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/WindTunnel/Activities/foldairplane.html.
- Using your chosen design, build several identical paper planes.
- 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.
- Fold a small portion of each wing tip up to create equal-sized winglets on each wing, and repeat the test flights.
- Calculate the average flight distance for each plane, both with and without winglets.
- Did flight distance improve with winglets? Were there improvements in other flight characteristics?
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
Aerospace EngineerHumans have always longed to fly and to make other things fly, both through the air and into outer space—aerospace engineers are the people that make those dreams come true. They design, build, and test vehicles like airplanes, helicopters, balloons, rockets, missiles, satellites, and spacecraft. Read more
Commercial & Industrial DesignerHave you always loved art? Do you have a good eye for beauty, balance, and form? How would you like to see your designs show up in toy stores? Or in a sporting goods store? Or at a car dealer? Commercial and industrial designers create the shape and form of every type of manufactured good that you can think of—from toys, sporting goods, and medical equipment to high technology products, furniture, toothbrushes, and toasters. They design the form of new products that are as beautiful and pleasing to look at as they are functional. Read more
Aerospace Engineering & Operations TechnicianAerospace engineering and operations technicians are essential to the development of new aircraft and space vehicles. They build, test, and maintain parts for air and spacecraft, and assemble, test, and maintain the vehicles as well. They are key members of a flight readiness team, preparing space vehicles for launch in clean rooms, and on the launch pad. They also help troubleshoot launch or flight failures by testing suspect parts. Read more
Aviation InspectorAviation inspectors are critical to ensuring that aircraft are safe to fly. They conduct pre-flight inspections to make sure an aircraft is safe. They also inspect the work of aircraft mechanics, and keep detailed records of work done to maintain or repair an aircraft. As problems are identified, they may make changes to maintenance schedules, and may be called upon to investigate air accidents. Read more
- 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.
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