The Design of Airplane Wings

As our understanding of lift and aerodynamic principles are constantly improving and changing, the design of aircraft wings has evolved. With wind tunnel technology and computer software aiding in the development of wing design, we have acquired a comprehensive understanding of lift and how to achieve it through aeronautical engineering. Since the primary operation of an aircraft determines the shape of its wings, it is easy to see how just a few degrees of difference can affect aircraft performance.

Many assume that since an aircraft depends on lift, the more lift, the better. However, this is not true. Though aircraft require ample lift to reach a cruising altitude and perform basic maneuvers, such as turns and banks, lift is not necessary for maneuverability. For instance, if the design of aircraft was entirely focused on lift, student pilots would be overwhelmed trying to control the pitch, yaw, and roll of the aircraft, as well as keeping an eye on the other challenges of piloting.

For aircraft that require a high degree of maneuverability, such as fighter jets, racing airplanes, and aerobatic aircraft, the wings are shaped differently than those used for training, passenger, or cargo transportation. Although such aircraft are more difficult to control, their maneuverability and possibilities involving lift are increased. This allows pilots to carry out barrel rolls, impressive banks, rapid acceleration, and loops.

In particular, the major difference among these aircraft is due to wing dihedral. Wing dihedral is defined as the angle of the aircraft wing in relation to its roll axis. As such, the more dihedral a wing has, the less lift it is capable of. For example, large cargo aircraft are constructed with an increased amount of dihedral. In contrast, fighter aircraft lack dihedral or have negative dihedral, meaning that the wingtips rest at a lower angle than its roots. For aircraft with a lot of dihedral, wingtips and tail surfaces are located above the roots.

Meanwhile, winglets or wingtip devices are used to reduce the amount of drag on fixed-wing aircraft. Serving as multifaceted devices, these next two paragraphs will attempt to cover their complexity. To begin, They help the main wing by producing their own lift, and they also increase safety, making the aircraft’s movements more predictable and controllable. Typically, they are found on passenger aircraft, increasing lift without necessitating a longer wingspan.

Winglets function by directing airflow along the upper wing. More than that, they reduce wingtip vortices, which are air pockets circulating behind the wing as a result of creating lift. Wingtip vortices can be frustrating for aeronautical engineers as they counteract the production of lift. Nonetheless, their placement on the wingtips help “calm” the air and lessen drag, increasing stability and reducing fuel consumption.

Finally, sharklets are a form of winglets that also point straight up in the air and serve as a part of the wing itself. Introduced by Airbus in December of 2010 on the A320neo, sharklets increase aircraft range by over 100 miles, meaning less fuel stops. Widespread use could revolutionize domestic aviation in the US, especially for flights heading West, which experience more headwinds than those flying East. While every part mentioned above is meant to enhance the overall performance of aircraft, aeronautical engineers are still crafting ways to continually improve wing construction.

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December 1, 2022

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