Imagine a box unfolding into a functional commercial jetliner. That is so futuristic it is impossible to imagine. Well, we are already on our way to making that a reality. Sort of. Since at least the 1930’s, fighter jets have been designed with foldable wings in order to save space on aircraft carriers. But, in May, Boeing announced that they’re bringing foldable wings to civil aviation. The new 777x will have foldable tips.
Boeing’s 777 is a long-range, wide-body, twin-engine jetliner that currently has a wingspan of about 213 feet. They plan to make it a majestic 235 feet. But, that’s too big to fit in the type of airport gates that normally hosts 777s. Because asking airports to make bigger gates to accommodate the bigger wingspan is unlikely, Boeing decided to just add hinges to reduce the wingspan to 212 feet, instead of shortening the wingspan overall.
Boeing’s decision to lengthen the wingspan comes from basic aviation principles. When planes fly, they create wake turbulence and wingtip vortices. Vortices are circular patterns of rotating air left behind a wing as it generates lift that can last for minutes. They induce drag, which decreases efficiency. They are also hazardous, causing aircraft who get too close to experience potentially fatal turbulence and rolls. With longer wings, the 777 can slice through the air with less drag, be more efficient, and not create such strong vortices.
On May 18th, 2018, the FAA gave Boeing official approval for the design, with special conditions. While the FAA lauds Boeing for the “ingenuity”, they understand that it would be disastrous if the wingtips were to fold during flight, or if the plane attempted takeoff before the wings are in the proper position. In response, Boeing’s engineers have implemented multiple layers of redundancy, as is the norm of aviation. There’s a primary and secondary latch system along with multiple layers of protection to ensure the wings always remain extended in flight and only fold when commanded. The plane is scheduled for delivery in 2020.
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