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I've noticed that winglets are very rare on small aircraft. I wonder why this is the case. Wouldn't they have the same advantages, especially because they travel at low speed? Or is it just a wrong impression I got and they aren't that rare?

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    $\begingroup$ My general understanding is that winglets can be best optimized for aircraft that spend a lot of time in a rather narrow window of possible angles-of-attack-- eg an airliner in long-range cruise. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Feb 14 at 17:31
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I've talked to a couple of aerodynamicists, and for small aircraft when you run the numbers the improvement offered by winglets is often less than the drag penalty caused by their weight (which also reduces allowable payload). For larger aircraft that fly long distances, the proportion of the aircraft's weight that is due to the winglets is much smaller than it is for small aircraft, so they don't have this problem and that makes winglets a viable strategy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Seems to be the more pressing argument against it so I changed the accepted question. Sorry Jan Hudec... $\endgroup$ – André Stannek May 19 '14 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ Winglet weight is also related to wingtip chord. There are lots of gliders equipped with winglets, and gliders can be considered as small aircrafts where weight considerations are important. $\endgroup$ – qq jkztd Feb 15 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ @qq jkztd it may be that that the winglet increases lift efficiency enough to allow the same lift at a fraction less AOA, meaning less drag. The winglet is a fence. Interesting that the 737 has them both up and down (with the supercritical wing). $\endgroup$ – Robert DiGiovanni Feb 17 at 2:39
  • $\begingroup$ Similarity of gliders and airliners is high aspect wing (easier to bend and twist). Digging into this further, and reading about the entire wing downwash rolling up, it may be true that the winglet does not make this vortex significantly smaller, but it may get it farther away from the lifting surface, reducing drag producing oscillations from turbulence. There are a few possibilities as to why they work, now trying to quantify them. $\endgroup$ – Robert DiGiovanni Feb 17 at 8:46
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As others have pointed out winglets don't make much aerodynamic sense for small aircraft.

The point of a winglet is basically to deflect the wingtip vortex away from the lift-producing part of the wing, granting an increase in effective wing span without the added form drag of actually making the wing longer.

The winglet itself creates some form drag though, and it adds weight. On most small aircraft the potential improvement in wing efficiency doesn't exceed the weight and form drag that result from adding the winglet.


What you will find on many small aircraft are Hoerner-style wingtips (either installed at the factory or added later through an STC modification). At lower speeds these have aerodynamic benefits similar to winglets, but without the additional form drag, and usually little or no added weight.

Hoerner Wingtip Diagram Hoerner Wingtip Photo

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  • $\begingroup$ So if Hoerner-style wingtips offer similar benefits to winglets without the drag/weight, then why aren't they used on larger aircraft? $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger May 19 '14 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ Because winglets can provide more benefit on longer range aircraft than these wingtips, and there are other options as well (see 777 or 787). Things can be different in the upper Mach numbers. $\endgroup$ – fooot May 19 '14 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ Pretty much what @fooot said -- at higher speeds and with larger wings the wingtip vortex would be comparatively larger, and would still "spill over" onto the lifting surface with Hoerner tips (they would be an improvement over a "plain" rounded wingtip, but winglets are a further improvement over the Hoerner-style tip). There's a crossing point where the winglet becomes more efficient than the Hoerner-style tip, but where that is depends on aircraft/airfoil design, expected cruise speeds, etc. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 May 19 '14 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ I get that, but it isn't clear in your answer (so you may want to clarify it a bit.) :-) $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger May 19 '14 at 18:33
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First, winglets look fancy but will not help that much in drag reduction. They were pushed less by engineers than by marketing, Boeing's in particular. They help a litte in ideal conditions, but in sideslip or at high speed they can quickly increase drag.

Then, most small aircraft are designs from a pre-winglet era. Adding them means to invalidate the type certificate, unless someone takes the initiative to re-certify the aircraft with winglets. I guess nobody has seen this as a profitable endeavor so far.

Gliders benefit from winglets because in competitions they are grouped in classes. Membership of some classes is defined by wingspan. Gliders get better with increasing wingspan, so if regulations limit the lateral extension, the way out is to extend the wings upwards. If there is no such artificial limit, it will in most cases be better to expand the wing in spanwise direction.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the second paragraph. Would accept your answer too if I could but Jan Hudec wins this one for beeing a little more extensive. $\endgroup$ – André Stannek May 19 '14 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ I've actually seen real world numbers from the same airliners, 737s, 757s and 767s pre and post-winglets. This was internal information at my airline. The number showed that winglets paid for themselves in about a year, including all of the modification costs. Airlines weren't installing them when they were headed to bankruptcy because Boeing is good at marketing. They do what they claim to do, and at an airline, 4% is huge. $\endgroup$ – OSUZorba Apr 26 '16 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ @OSUZorba: I bet this was for the 737 winglets. Look at that wing: It has been pushed way above its design lift and adding winglets will help to shift the operating point back to where it was supposed to be. Now compare this with a new wing - the benefit is very small. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Apr 26 '16 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ @OSUZorba: And they were operated at the same cruise Mach number, same altitude, same routing? No additional changes, like to the engine control laws? Thought so. You are comparing the winglets not on an equal basis, but a bunch of fuel-saving changes to the situation before. The winglets were only part of this. Didn't I tell you they are good at marketing? $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Apr 27 '16 at 5:45
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    $\begingroup$ Considering they came into mod and left mod and the only thing done was winglets, and the aircraft fly about 300 hours a month, and it was over 400 aircraft by the time it was all said and done. It is pretty easy to build a statistically significant representation of what was going on. Unless you think the entire routing of the entire system changed once winglets were installed. Like I said, I've seen the real data, from real aircraft, flying real routes. Winglets on existing commercial designs are far more than marketing to a commercial operator. $\endgroup$ – OSUZorba Apr 28 '16 at 0:50
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Many small aircraft designs are rather old and winglets were not common on airliners either when they were certified. For airliners that fly 8 or more hours a day saving a few percent on fuel quickly pays off the additional development and certification, so winglets were adopted quickly there. But typical general aviation aircraft does not fly anywhere close to that and the few that fly more and would be worth upgrading (and their owners have money for upgrade) are not enough to make the design and manufacture profitable.

Note, that winglets did find their way to gliders, especially competition ones, as the little benefit is more noticeable there. They also do appear on some newer designs, most notably the Diamond ones (DA20, DA40, DA42).

The situation is very similar to why we don't see more aircraft diesel engines. They are more efficient, use cheaper fuel and are somewhat cheaper to maintain, but the certification is so complicated that there are only few modifications available.

Also most GA aircraft are not really very efficient to begin with. The DA20-A1 claims glide ratio 14:1 and that is way better than most competitors. Compare with airliners where 18:1 is nothing special (was claimed by A320 some 30 years ago). So winglets are not going to help as much.

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    $\begingroup$ The chief designer of DA comes from a glider background and knows winglets in and out. On the other hand, more conservative designers do not embrace winglets openly. When Rutan's Starship design was forced upon the engineers at Beech, the winglets were a major source of their many complaints, which mostly turned out to be correct, btw. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf May 19 '14 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf Your comment made me curious to know what were the major complaints with winglets and which ones turned out to be correct? $\endgroup$ – Canuk Aug 13 '15 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Canuk: The biggest complaint: Now the bending moment at the tip is not zero anymore. But the winglets were not their biggest complaint; the Starship prototype was shoddily built such that the wing thickness differed between left and right wing, for example. Management insisted that it be copied completely from the 0.85 scale prototype, warts and all. This was most upsetting. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Aug 13 '15 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ RE immediately above-- they insisted that the mistakes be copied? That is bizarre and almost hard to believe. A bit of trivia: one of the lead engineers on the Starship project was my glider instructor when I was a kid in high school. Maybe that explains why I find I have an unconscious tendency to always push on one rudder pedal? (Kidding!) $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Feb 14 at 18:07
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One possible explanation is that large amounts of sweep and higher indicated airspeed are less common in "smaller" GA aircraft. Larger and faster aircraft with large amounts of sweep literally plow the air aside, resulting in a significant spanwise airflow at the wingtips.

Winglets are touted for reducing the strength of wing tip vortices, and are said to generate some forward force from the wingtip vortex, but they also may improve efficiency simply by bouncing the span wise flow aft, which would generate a small amount of thrust.

The winglet "fence" may also allow a slightly lower AOA for the same amount of lift by helping maintain pressure differential all the way to the wingtip. Lower AOA means less drag.

An earlier form of winglets, wing tip fuel tanks, also served as a wing tip fence in addition to acting as a wingtip weight roll damper and spanwise weight distributor.

Many smaller, slower planes do not benefit enough from winglets to justify the additional cost and weight. However, they may be seen on STOL aircraft to help trap a bit more air under the wings for high AOA slow flight, along with slats and flaps; and more competitive gliders, where a slight advantage is meaningful.

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My general understanding is that winglets are most beneficial for aircraft that spend a lot of time in a rather narrow window of possible angles-of-attack-- e.g. an airliner in long-range cruising flight. Small aircraft tend not to fit this profile, unless they are flown by really boring pilots.

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