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We're well familiar with swing wings, on small and large aircraft from both the east and west.

What other types of variable geometry have been tried?

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps too mundane or not "geometry", but don't under-estimate the change between flaps retracted/ cruise configuration, and flaps extended/landing configuration on any modern airliner. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Jul 24 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ And there's the Wright Flyer from 1903, which used wing warping controls to do what later airplanes did with ailerons. $\endgroup$ – Walter Mitty Jul 24 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ Assuming you mean by-design as opposed to more spontaneous variable geometry ? $\endgroup$ – Criggie Jul 24 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ @nigel222 Good point, it could easily be argued that movable flaps and slats are variable geometry. They're mundane like you point out, but only because they're so good. $\endgroup$ – Adam Jul 24 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ Any aircraft is a variable geometry aircraft if you fly it fast enough. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jul 25 at 5:12

13 Answers 13

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The Tu-144 had retractable canards, used for good control during landing and takeoff, but retracted during cruise for better streamlined shape.

enter image description here

Edit: I will take "variable geometry" to mean a big change in the wing or lifting surface, or thrust vectoring. This is how I understand the term.

If you took it literally, then a whole host of things come up like retractable landing gear, drag chutes, drop tanks... I don't think this is what the OP had in mind, but correct me if I'm wrong.

And let me just point out the caveat, that conventional control surfaces (ailerons, rudders, elevators) are very much variable geometry in the literal sense. From an aerodynamics point of view, they can be thought of as changing the camber of the surface, which deflects airflow and produces a certain amount of lift.

Now on to the continued list:

  • All-Moving Tails (Stabilator). This is where the entire tailplane (horizontal stabilizer) changes its angle, rather than just an elevator. Many fighter aircraft have these, like the F-16.

enter image description here

  • Variable Shock Cones, like in the SR-71. These moved backwards or forwards depending on flight speed, to give better shockwave intake geometry to the engine.

enter image description here

  • Also, the interior of the SR-71 engines themselves had variable geometry. Parts of the flow shut off so that it became a ramjet, and at low speeds, parts opened again to act more like a turbojet. I don't know the exact details.

enter image description here

  • Thrust Vectoring. There's all kinds of thrust vectoring. Some don't even involve variable geometry, but most do.

enter image description here

  • Tiltjets. Someone mentioned Tiltrotors, but not tiltjets. They seem to be much rarer.

enter image description here

  • Variable Pitch Propellers. There is definitely some varying geometry here, but not sure if everyone would call this thrust vectoring. But if thrust is a vector, and a vector has both direction and magnitude, then I'd say it qualifies.

enter image description here

  • Certain kinds of gliders. In hang-gliders, the pilot can move his weight around to control direction. The wings also flex in response to this. In paragliding, the pilot pulls on ropes that adjust the geometry of the "sail", controlling direction to a certain extent.

enter image description here

enter image description here

I have seen other experimental stuff, e.g., this pdf, but they seem to be unmanned so far. Not that that disqualifies anything, but being man-rated or put into production is a big milestone.

enter image description here

Oh, and how could I forget ornithopters!

enter image description here

Ornithopters are machines that actually flap their wings like a bird, providing lift and thrust all in one.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great collection, showing that actually all aircraft have variable geometry. $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Jul 26 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ The single piece elevator was actually the key to going supersonic and maintaining stability. The supersonic shock wave would render the conventional hinged elevator ineffective. Discovered by Yeager and Ridley, by manipulating the variable incidence fixed portion of the elevator on the X1, and finding that elevator effectiveness was maintained in the transonic speed range. This morphed into a single piece elevator, the 'flying tail'. Not an issue on delta wings, because the shock wave isn't near the balance portion of the elevons. $\endgroup$ – tj1000 Jul 27 at 7:19
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Extending wings

The idea is to have a larger wing area at takeoff for more lift and a smaller wing area in flight for more efficiency.

The NIAI RK and followup RK-I used two tandem wings that served as rails for an extendable panel that could be rolled out between them.

NIAI RK-I extending wing airplane

The project failed because Stalin was so enthusiastic about it he had it use the most powerful engine available which was too unreliable. I can't find a reason why the concept was not tried again.

The German FS-29 glider of 1972 had a different arrangement. It had an outer wing that fit over an inner wing and could unsheathe like a sword. Only one was built.

FS-29 glider

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    $\begingroup$ "I can't find a reason why the concept was not tried again." Too much added weight for the gain? $\endgroup$ – Mast Jul 24 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Mast given the success of the RK I'd venture that the weight was worth the performance gain at the time. I'd speculate that much higher interest in jets sucked up resources for projects that had a much lower potential performance. Also availability of more powerful engines and longer runways means less need for high lift devices. But again, speculation. $\endgroup$ – Adam Jul 24 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ I'll add that my supervisor (Prof. Cheeseman of Southampton University, UK) worked on telescoping rotor blades - I don't think it ever flew though. $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett Jul 25 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Mast Added weight is no big deal in gliders, nowadays many single seater have a 40 kg engine sitting behind your back. If telescopic wing system fits regulations and gives serious performance advantage racing pilots would be rather sure about what to trade the 40kgs of the engine for $\endgroup$ – Caterpillaraoz Jul 29 at 7:14
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Oblique Wing

A normal wing at takeoff then pivots during flight. High-risk idea to make transport aircraft more efficient in the transonic regime.

Lighter and simpler than a swing wing, with no change in the center of lift as the geometry is changed. Disadvantage is that flight characteristics become asymmetric left and right, plus problems with rigidity. See this question for more.

NASA AD-1

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    $\begingroup$ @Federico they're two separate answers, right? Shouldn't we allow users to vote on them separately and differently? $\endgroup$ – JJJ Jul 24 at 9:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Federico it is my understanding that providing two answers is allowed on this site, and does not require policing. $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Jul 24 at 10:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JJJ no, it's a question that requires a list, all items from the same author should go in the same answer. Theoretically the question could be closed as too broad, or should have only one community wiki answer. $\endgroup$ – Federico Jul 24 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Federico is that a rule on this site? On other sites (e.g. ELU), it's encouraged to post them separately so they can be voted on separately to get a better order of answers based on quality, recent edits, etc. See this question on the general meta site. $\endgroup$ – JJJ Jul 24 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Federico without making this into a big discussion, I'd say two elements in a list are distinct as one element can be more relevant or useful than another. It's not a closed yes or no question where to list items contribute as reasons to the same yes or no answer. As you say, by that reasoning all could be in the same community-wiki answer but I don't think that improves readability and usability for future visitors because different list elements cannot be voted on separately. ;) $\endgroup$ – JJJ Jul 24 at 10:40
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In addition to types already mentioned by other answers:

Tiltwing

Was used to allow VTOL operations by tilting the entire wing, as can be seen on the Hiller X-18. The concept was never used outside testing as far as I can tell.

Photo series showing the wing tilting.

Aeroelastic Wing

Tested on the X-29 and later on the Boeing X-53, which was based on the F/A-18 Hornet. The idea here is that the wing can be twisted to control roll, giving better control while reducing load on the aircraft. Only used in testing so far.

X-53 in flight

Canard Rotor/Wing

The concept was that an aircraft could use a rotary wing similar to a helicopter for vertical take-off and landing; once up to speed it would stop the rotor and use it as a conventional wing. Was never tested in VTOL mode and the project was cancelled. See Boeing X-50 Dragonfly for more information.

Variable geometry wingtip

The XB-70 Valkyrie had hinged wingtips which could be angled downwards by up to 65 degrees to improve lift and stability in certain regimes.

Final Valkyrie layout showing variable wingtips.

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    $\begingroup$ Is there a difference between your aeroelastic wing example and early wooden/fabric wings which would just deform the wing rather than have hinging ailerons? $\endgroup$ – thosphor Jul 24 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ If I've understood it correctly it's more a matter of how the wing is twisted. Early aircraft used control wires to twist the wing; the aerolastic wing uses a combination of control surfaces and aerodynamic load to twist the wing. NASA published a bit more information (nasa.gov/centers/armstrong/news/FactSheets/FS-061-DFRC.html), where it appears that early F/A-18 had problems with wing twisting, resulting in the wing being strengthened. The X-53 restored the original more flexible wing and modified some of the control surfaces and systems. $\endgroup$ – bjelleklang Jul 24 at 11:42
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    $\begingroup$ For variable geometry wingtip, the NASA is still investigating the benefits on a drone. $\endgroup$ – Bentoy13 Jul 24 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ The X-18's full tiling wing never went anywhere, but arguably this was critical inspiration for the V-22 Osprey $\endgroup$ – J... Jul 25 at 15:38
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The Concorde had a drooping nose to allow it to be very streamlined during flight but offer better low-angle visibility when taxiing, taking off and landing.

Nose down when landing: Nose down when landing.

Diagram showing up and down nose positions: Diagram showing up and down nose positions.

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    $\begingroup$ -1. Don't mean to be rude but I have to question the "variable geometry" in this case. If you take it literally for any part of the aircraft then you might as well talk about retractable landing gear, flaps and slats, ram air turbines, adjustable air intake ramps, reverse thrusters, or even drag chutes. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Jul 25 at 3:30
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    $\begingroup$ @DrZ214 Don't all those things qualify? If not, where do you think the line should be drawn? $\endgroup$ – Don Hatch Jul 25 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ @DonHatch All of those things are literally "variable geometry", but usually that term refers to variable geometry in the wings or a lifting surface, and maybe thrust vectoring too. $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Jul 25 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ @DrZ214 Well this is a question about variable geometry other than a swing wing. :-) $\endgroup$ – Dronz Jul 26 at 5:25
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Variable incidence, on the F-8 Crusader.

from the Wiki page

From the Wiki page:

The most innovative aspect of the design was the variable-incidence wing which pivoted by 7° out of the fuselage on takeoff and landing (not to be confused with variable-sweep wing). This allowed a greater angle of attack, increasing lift without compromising forward visibility.

Tiltrotor, on the V-22 Osprey

From the Wiki page:

A tiltrotor aircraft differs from a tiltwing in that only the rotor pivots rather than the entire wing. This method trades off efficiency in vertical flight for efficiency in STOL/STOVL operations.

enter image description here

And of course: rotating wings! Pioneered by Juan de la Cierva for the autogyro, and Igor Sikorsky for the helicopter

from the wiki yes the wiki

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    $\begingroup$ Variable incidence wing looks just like an all-moving tail, but for the wing. Didn't know they ever made that! $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Jul 25 at 11:36
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Variable Camber Wing

From the late 60s to the early 90s NASA tested experimental variants of their F-111s; at one period they were trying out a "Mission Adaptive Wing":

The second phase called transonic aircraft technology (TACT/F-111A) added an highly efficient supercritical wing and later the third phase applied advanced wing (Mission Adaptive Wing-MAW) flight control technologies and was called Advanced Fighter Technology Integration (AFTI/F-111A). source

The F-111 was already a swing-wing aircraft, but this modification was a supercricital mission-adaptive wing with smooth variable camber, similar to the aero-elastic wing already mentioned.

Flight research concept can be read here and results can be read here.

AFTI F-111 source In flight - compare with landing wing below.

AFTI F-111 source

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    $\begingroup$ My dad worked on this program! $\endgroup$ – Michael Hall Jul 23 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ Never heard of this one, thanks for the report links! $\endgroup$ – AEhere supports Monica Jul 24 at 7:20
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    $\begingroup$ If I'm seeing this correctly, it's effectively flaps and slats, but the wing itself bends down instead of having separate pieces droop. Or, to put it another way, as the flaps/slats extend/droop, they remain covered by the main wing skin instead of having their own skin and multiple sections. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jul 24 at 19:20
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Going waaay back to the Wright Flyer, aircraft were originally controlled by warping the wing. Literally yanking on the edges of the wing to twist it and induce a roll. In a few years this technique was replaced with ailerons on rigid wings.

enter image description here

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Common Variable Geometries

These are so successful to have become mundane.

  • Control surfaces. Rudder, ailerons, elevators, etc.
  • Movable flaps and/or slats. Increase lift (and drag) at low speed.
  • Spoilers and air brakes.
  • Retractable landing gear. Does change shape and performance of aircraft.
  • Drop tanks, drag chutes, bomb doors. Debatable, including for completeness.
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  • $\begingroup$ Also rotating propeller- does that count? $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jul 26 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ @quietflyer I think that argument is very thin, but this CW is to keep the pedantry contained so edit it in if you believe in it. $\endgroup$ – Adam Jul 26 at 1:10
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Yet another extending wing design, the Makhonine Mak-10.

cc-by-sa from FlightGlobal via Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa from FlightGlobal via Wikimedia Commons)

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Would a glider that can drop its motor below the fuselage for takeoff, then re-stow it for gliding fall into this category?

The engine, with electric starter for air starting, erects from and retracts into a bay in the forward fuselage by means of electro-hydraulic power.

I can't find a picture with motor extended.

https://web.archive.org/web/20110715225311/http://www.sailplanedirectory.com/PlaneDetails.cfm?PlaneID=330

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  • $\begingroup$ Looks to me like the prop (not motor ) is above ( not below ) the fuselage for launching-- $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jul 26 at 2:32
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Don't forget hang gliders. In addition to the weight-shift (movable pilot) aspect mentioned in another answer, modern hang gliders have a feature called "variable geometry" or "variable billow". When the system is engaged by tensioning a cord or lever, the sweep angle of the leading edges is decreased by few degrees. The purpose is to increase the length of the trailing edge, as seen in plan view (from above). This tensions the fabric of the whole wing, decreasing "billow" and twist (washout), which increases the L/D ratio and glide ratio and decreases the sink rate, especially at higher airspeeds, but at the cost of also making the glider less responsive in roll and thus harder to maneuver. An additional side effect of most vg systems is a change in the anhedral angle of the leading edges.

You could also say that the "speed bar" system of a modern paraglider is a type of variable geometry. As for that matter so are the basic steering controls of a paraglider which are a form of wing warping.

Also, a little-known fact is that the weight-shift roll inputs of a hang glider pilot actively pull the moveable "keel tube" (a structural element on/ near the glider centerline) in the intended direction of turn, thus actively warping the entire wing. If you immobilized this tube and also sprayed the whole wing fabric with shellac to stiffen it in a fixed position- even if while placed in a wind tunnel to "inflate" the fabric to an optimum shape- the glider would become extremely "stiff" and unresponsive to roll control inputs. This in fact is the fundamental reason that engaging the VG system makes the glider harder to turn- the keel tube has less freedom to move from side to side.

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Some early attempts at VTOL involved changing the vector of the thrust, not by tilting the engines or wings but by using other engines.

Doriner DO-31 used two Bristol Pegasus engines (same as the Harrier) for forward flight, and six smaller vertically oriented engines for vertical takeoff/landing. Originally, the Pegasus engines were to vector downward for takeoff/landing, but this was never tried. The DO-31 was canceled by NATO in 1970... the vertical engine pods increased drag to the point where useful payload was very low.

A successful effort to use vectored thrust in unique ways to increase lift is the Shin Meiwa PS1/US1 flying boat. Aside from the four turboprops, the PS1 also has a single GE T58 turboshaft engine mounted behind the cockpit to power a fan to blow air across the flaps for increased lift at very low speed for shorter takeoff and landing. A few years ago, a US1 landed in 15 foot swells to pick up a F16 pilot who had ejected over the ocean. China recently debuted what appears to be a copy of the Shin Meiwa, the AVIC AG-600. but it does not appear to use blown flaps. Its capability to deliver large numbers of troops quickly, without needing a runway, might come in handy should China decide to invade a certain large island.

The Boeing YC-14 transport also used blown flaps for STOL, by directing the output from the center mounted turbofans over the flaps. While the YC-14 never entered production, the very similar Antonov AN-72 did enter production, and has been quite successful.

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