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NASA Is Bending Aircraft Wings On Purpose

Usually when you hear about airplane wings bending, it's not a good thing. But that's exactly what NASA and FlexSys are doing.

The two have partnered on a project to test a flexible flap system. And if everything goes as planned, these control surfaces will be the future for old and new aircraft.


What Are Flexible Flaps?

The flaps, called Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) controls, aren't hinged like a normal flap. Instead, the flexible flaps use composite materials and actuators to bend the wing down where a hinged flap would normally be. The advantage? More aerodynamic efficiency, less weight, and less noise.


More Aerodynamic Efficiency

Flexible controls create a variable geometry airfoil, which reduces airflow turbulence and vortex formation. Extended wing flaps are a perfect place for vortices to form, as high pressure air from underneath the flap 'spills over' to the top of the flap.


By smoothing out the transition area on the back of a wing, the designers at FlexSys are able to keep the airflow more smooth, and in turn, reduce drag when you're using flaps.

Less Weight

Most jet aircraft use metal flight control surfaces that are powered by large hydraulic actuators, or heavy electrical motors. When you add all of that weight, you need to produce more lift to stay airborne. And when you produce more lift, you also produce more drag.

Less Noise

The flexible wing design is actually quieter too. That's because of the reduction of turbulence and vortices off the flap. If you look at the picture below, you can see vortices forming on a traditional hinged flap.

Pedro Moura Pinheiro

Like we mentioned before, the area between the flap and wing creates a lot of turbulent airflow as well. When you add it all up, you get a lot of airflow noise.


With the flexible design, the turbulent airflow and vortices are all but eliminated, making for a much quieter flight - something everyone can appreciate.

The Future Of Flight Controls

While you probably won't see these flight controls on airliners in the immediate future, they have a lot of potential. Early NASA estimates say that these flexible control surfaces could reduce drag on large planes by 5%-12%.

That's significant, considering that a 1% reduction in drag on the US widebody aircraft fleet would reduce fuel consumption by a staggering 200 million gallons per year.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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