Strong turbulence tears the fin of the passenger plane during the flight

Turbulence so severe that it causes airsickness is less common than ever in the modern era of commercial flight. Higher operating ceilings, larger aircraft, and better weather reports have made modern air travel a largely smooth and drama-free experience. However, there are still extreme exceptions to every rule, and Envoy Air Flight 3729 is here to prove it in spectacular fashion. The scheduled passenger flight from Charleston, South Carolina, to Dallas, Texas was diverted after encountering severe turbulence that ripped off part of its wing. This part landed safely, albeit unexpectedly, in Birmingham, Alabama.

The jet in question was an Embraer E175 regional jet. Passenger Brandon Owen shared a tweet with footage of the crashed plane’s wing missing its winglet; for reference, below is what the wingtip of an E175 should resemble. The entire upturned tip portion of the wing, known as the winglet, is what sheared off in flight at 36,000 feet and forced the emergency diversion.

The popularization of winglets on modern commercial airliners is primarily due to their ability to break up wingtip vortices which produce drag and reduce fuel economy. In other words, they are not strictly crucial for theft. NASA conducted extensive testing in the late 1960s and early 1970s and found that adding sail-like extensions to the end of traditional wings could significantly increase range and fuel economy with only a slight increase in weight. As such they have been a reserve for most aircraft ever since. There are still recalcitrants, like the Boeing 777, which has no fins.

However, Embraer’s E175 was only ever sold with winglets, and since the specific aircraft in question (N233NN) was delivered in 2016, it has the latest version offered by Embraer on the E-series -jet, designed for maximum efficiency (and seamlessly integrated into the design of the wing itself). While the plane had to make an emergency landing since, you know, parts of the plane aren’t supposed to fall off in flight, the Embraer still landed safely because the winglet isn’t a crucial element needed for lift, even on the E175. Indeed, planning flights where the aircraft lacks winglets is not common but can be done, as some aircraft models have flight certifications with and without winglets. That said, the E175’s minimum equipment list – the master list of what can be inoperable on an aircraft and allow it to fly – does not allow the aircraft to fly specifically if it’s missing a winglet, and because the wing illumination lights are built into the winglets, it would be specifically forbidden to fly beyond dusk with only one tip remaining. Even though the E175 was still controllable and safe, it’s hard to blame the pilot for landing when the wings started to drop.

All told, landing safely on a plane with an extremely strong operational record means you probably don’t need to check the window every few minutes to make sure your plane is intact the next time you fly. But now you’ll know what those swept portions do and how much your plane really needs them.

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