Thoughts in transit

I love looking at winglets on airplanes.

In fact, I love watching the wings during flight, the way the are at the same time such large structures, but also elegant, dynamic and flexible. I love the way they are responsive in changes in the airstream and the flaps make small adjustments, the way they change their shape during landings when airbrakes are deployed and the surface maximized. A wing in flight and during take off and landing looks like two different creatures rolled into one.

There are quite a range of winglet designs, from small and quite discreet, like on an Airbus A318 to really in your face versions as boasted by the Boeing 737. Whatever the design, the principle behind the winglets remains the same though, which is to optimize the airflow over the wing or rather increase efficiency by reducing drag and recovering part of the wing’s tip vortex energy. What they do effectively is to increase the aspect ratio of the wing without having to increase the size of the wing.

Quite neat. Clever people, those aviation engineers… but hold on, the shape of the winglets rings a bell. Where have I seen something similar before?

Yes, of course. Birds wings use a similar principle, the primary wing tip feathers making a winglet-type shape when soaring.

This is not the only example where natural and technical solutions end up close together.

In Heathrow’s Terminal 5, an impressive building by any standards, I was contemplating the internal truss structures yesterday and was thinking how in the end they emulate natural buttressed structures such as tree trunks.

Mind you, “emulate” is probably the wrong term.

It is not so much that engineers copy nature, but what rather that with all our sophisticated computer assisted design software, when it comes to optimised designs, using the least amount of material in the most efficient fashion, yet still offering the highest degree of strength and resilience, artificial and naturally-evolved designs end up looking similar.

This is quite humbling and could remind us to take a step back when declaring, maybe a tad arrogantly, that we know better than trees what shape they should be. Of course, trees in an urban environment face totally different challenges than in their natural habitat, but in general I feel that it is worthing observing the way that trees respond to stresses and strains in terms of growth strategies and patterns.

After all, when all said and done, thinking of the Ginkgo – a living fossile, they have been at this game a couple of years longer than we have!

P.S. Talking of birds: I watched Birdman, that was just awarded loads of Oscars, on the plane on the trip across. Comedy, it was listed under. Huh, well… I was a bit depressed by the end of it. But there you go, tastes probably just vary, as also does humor.

P.P.S. Don’t bother with Mazerunner. Very forgettable. Read a book instead.

P.P.P.S. Do NOT watch Notting Hill. Drives me nuts, why is it that it always seems as though someone is watching that film on any given flight?! Argh!