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Mimicking humpback whale flippers may improve airplane wing design

slow down during landing.

Improved resistance to stall would add a new margin of safety to aircraft flight and also make planes more maneuverable. Drag -- the rearward force on an airplane wing -- affects how much fuel the airplane must consume during flight. Stall occurs when the air no longer flows smoothly over the top of the wing but separates from the top of the wing before reaching the trailing edge. When an airplane wing stalls, it dramatically loses lift while incurring an increase in drag.

As whales move through the water, the tubercles disrupt the line of pressure against the leading edge of the flippers. The row of tubercles sheers the flow of water and redirects it into the scalloped valley between each tubercle, causing swirling vortices that roll up and over the flipper to actually enhance lift properties.

"The swirling vortices inject momentum into the flow," said Howle. "This injection of momentum keeps the flow attached to the upper surface of the wing and delays stall to higher wind angles."

"This discovery has potential applications not only to airplane wings but also on the tips of helicopter rotors, airplane propellers and ship rudders," said Howle.

The purpose of the tubercles on the leading edge of humpback whale flippers has been the source of speculation for some time, said Fish. "The idea they improved flipper aerodynamics was so counter to our current doctrine of fluid dynamics, no one had ever analyzed them," he said.

Humpback whales maneuver in the water with surprising agility for 44-foot animals, particularly when they are hunting for food. By exhaling air underwater as they turn in a circle, the whales create a cylindrical wall of bubbles that herd small fish inside. Then they barrel up through the middle of the "bubble net," mouth open wide, to scoop up their prey.

According to Fish, the scalloped hammerhead shark is the only other marine animal with a similar aerodynamic
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Contact: Deborah Hill
dahill@duke.edu
919-401-0299
Duke University
11-May-2004


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