Phenomena

4th Birthday: Wingtip Vortices

Wingtip vortices are a result of the finite length of a wing. Airplanes generate lift by having low-pressure air travelling over the top of the wing and higher pressure air along the bottom. If the wing were infinite, the two flows would remain separate. Instead, the high-pressure air from under the wing sneaks around the wingtip to reach the lower pressure region. This creates the vorticity that trails behind the aircraft. I was first introduced to the concept of wingtip vortices in my junior year during introductory fluid dynamics. As I recall, the concept was utterly bizarre and so difficult to wrap our heads around that everyone, including the TA, had trouble figuring out which way the vortices were supposed to spin. A few good photos and videos would have helped, I’m sure. (Photo credits: U.S. Coast Guard, S. Morris, Nat. Geo/BBC2)

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