Winglets: Fuel savers in disguise


Amid our construction and redevelopment, we see all sorts of aircraft come and go from Charleston International Airport.

There was NASA’s Guppy. The famous Blue Angels have been here on more than one occasion. Private aircraft big and small are in and out regularly. Then we have the workhorses – the Air Force C-17 cargo planes and Boeing’s new 787s – that lumber down the runways yet soar into the sky with apparent ease.

Each aircraft has its own design characteristics and, in many cases, specialty designs and colors, that portray the brand and personality of commercial airline companies. We turned to NSAA, Air and Space Smithsonian, Boeing and the avgeeks at to learn more about aircraft wings, specifically winglets, a wingtip device that is more than just a cool stylizing of an aircraft.

The winglet concept originated in the late 1800s with a British aerodynamicist. In the 1970s when jet fuel prices escalated during the oil crisis, Richard Whitcom, a NASA engineer, revisited the design idea. Today, winglets are the airline industry’s most visible cost-saving measure.

“Inspiration for the design came from birds observed to curl their wingtip feathers upward when in need of high lift,” according to

Winglets are vertical extensions for an aircraft’s wingtips. They are designed to reduce drag, increase lift and make flying easier and more fuel efficient.

The types of winglets vary by aircraft and airline. The three most common types are winglets, blended winglets, and wingtip fences. Some aircraft sport the newer split scimitar, a double winglet, if you will.

Some are as tall as six feet. Many carry the logos and colors of the airlines that fly them.

Aviation Partners Boeing, a joint venture of Aviation Partners Inc. and The Boeing Company, estimates that by the end of 2014, blended winglets – those with a gradual curve upward – will have saved more than five billion gallons of fuel.

Next time you fly, take a look at the wings and see if you can identify what kind of winglet it has. Learn more about winglets at these links:

Aircraft winglets

Winglets… The Ultimate AvGeek Guide

Dryden Flight Research Center

Winglets and Sharklets

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