Flip a wing. Humpback whales have a thing or two to teach aerospace engineers.

Flippered Flight

Scientists may have hit upon a curious new inspiration for designing more efficient airplane wings: the flipper of the humpback whale.

A humpback's flippers have a row of bumps called tubercles along their leading edge. Water swirls between the bumps, both increasing lift and minimizing drag, enabling the animals to execute rapid 180-degree turns and other flashy moves in pursuit of fish, says biomechanicist Frank Fish of West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

Fish and engineer colleagues tested 57-centimeter-long scale models of humpback flippers in a wind tunnel and found that they outperformed conventional straight-edged wings. Wings based on humpback flippers could do away with wing flaps and flow-control devices, minimizing risk of mechanical failure and increasing fuel space, the researchers recount in the May issue of Physics of Fluids.

Fish and his colleagues have "explained the function of the unique morphology of a very successful whale," says biomechanics expert John Long of Vassar University in Poughkeepsie, New York. "In 10 years we may well see every single jetliner with the bumps of humpback whale flippers."