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Why are the wings of some planes changing width?

I was travelling recently in a Boeing 737 and I noticed one thing that I didn't understand. After the
takeoff the wing flaps started retracting into/under the wing, making it narrower. The opposite
happened before the landing.
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You can see what I mean in this video:

The question is:


Why are the flaps hiding into/under the wing?

I understand that the bigger wing area is better during takeoff and landing. But why is the wings'
size reduced during the cruise? Shouldn't bigger wings provide better lift during the entire
flight?

Some clarification after comments:


I'm asking specifically why are the flaps retracted and not just remain parallel to the wing

aircraft-design wing boeing-737 aircraft-physics

share improve this question edited Sep 2 '16 at 16:28 asked Sep 2 '16 at 16:04
pajonk
128 6

4 Possible duplicate of Why and when to use flaps? – fooot Sep 2 '16 at 16:08

2 @ymb1 Judging from the last paragraph, it sounds like he's just asking why the flaps are retracted for cruise,
which seems like a duplicate of the other question. – reirab Sep 2 '16 at 16:17

Yes, @ymb1 is right. I knew that flaps in the position not parallel to the wing would increase drag. However, I
didn't realise that bigger wing itself results in more drag too. – pajonk Sep 2 '16 at 16:19

1 @pajonk So, you're asking why they're retracted rather than just raised to be parallel with the wing? Some
flaps do exactly that, actually, just hinging on a fixed point instead of retracting forward underneath the wing.
That's pretty common on light aircraft. That kind is called plain flaps, while the kind you see more commonly
on airliners are called Fowler flaps (or some variant thereof, at least.) – reirab Sep 2 '16 at 16:23

@reirab Yes, that's right. I'll try to clarify that in the question. – pajonk Sep 2 '16 at 16:25

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3 Answers active oldest votes

Well, yes, bigger wings to provide better lift, but the also produce more induced drag in the
process.

11 The wings on an airliner are optimized for cruise in high subsonic and transonic flight where a
slender, swept wing works well. While this is great for cruise flight, the trade-off is this style of wing
requires a very high approach speed for landings which in turn require very long runways to
accelerate the airplane on to reach rotation speed for takeoff or to decelerate the aircraft on once it
has landed.

The Boeing Company successfully addressed these problems in the early 1960 with the
development of the 727 airplane as a regional airliner. It made use of a type of flaps called Fowler
flaps (see Fig 1) in concert with leading edge extensions. Fowler flaps. These style of flaps consist
of a series of segments attached to tracks or support linkages running chordwise, allowing the flaps
segments to extend and retract by rolling along said tracks.
Fig 1. Typical Fowler flap installation

When deployed these give the effect of changing the airfoil shape from a slender, slightly cambered
airfoil into a wide airfoil with a large camber. Fowler flaps have an additional advantage to them in
that partial deployment creates a large increase in lift with limited additional drag, very useful for
takeoff, while when fully deployed they create a lot of drag in addition to higher lift.

share improve this answer edited Sep 2 '16 at 16:42 answered Sep 2 '16 at 16:33
Carlo Felicione
24.3k 2 38 96

but not to the extent which the 727 did. The reduced approach speeds and ability to get into short airfields from
that was one of its chief selling point. – Carlo Felicione Sep 2 '16 at 16:44

Induced drag depends on the lift and speed and the lift is always the same as in level flight it needs to exactly
balance the weight. So leaving the flaps extended would not increase the induced drag. It would increase
the parasite drag because the camber would be too large for the amount of lift needed and the wetted area
would be larger. – Jan Hudec Sep 2 '16 at 20:08

add a comment

Bigger wings also produce more drag. Instead, flying faster (in cruise) produces the required lift.

For any given object, the bigger it is, the more drag it produces.
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Since a plane spends most of its time in cruise, the wings are designed with a lift-to-drag ratio that
suits cruising.

For slow flying (take-offs and landings), high-lift devices are then used, they come in many flavors.

share improve this answer answered Sep 2 '16 at 16:11


ymb1
40.6k 4 117 217
add a comment

Flaps are a more or less crude way of changing the shape of the wing so that it is able to provide
more life at lower speeds and higher angles of attach this is important on take-off and especially
landing where the aircfrat is moving relatively slowly.
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The trade off is that flaps dramatically increase the drag.

Bear in mind here that commercial airliner spend most of their flight time cruising at more or less
constant speed and altitude. Here there is no value in 'more' lift, they need exactly enough lift to
support their weight at an efficient cruising speed ans so the wing shape is designed to do this with
the minimum possible drag.

Flaps increase the lift at low speed so the aircraft still has enough lift to support its own weight
when approaching for landing without needing to be traveling at a speed which would make safe
landing more difficult and require a very long runway to slow down after touchdown.