Vortices and Ground Effect

Though typically unseen, the vortices that swirl from the tips of aircraft wings are powerful. Here you see a Hawker Sea Fury equipped with a smoke system used to visualize the vortices that form at the wingtip as high-pressure air from the bottom of the wing and low-pressure air from the top swirl together. As you can see, the vortices persist in the wake long after the plane passes. The size and strength of the vortices depend on the size and speed of the aircraft; this is why air traffic control requires smaller planes to wait longer to take off or land if there was just a larger aircraft on the runway.

The other cool thing to note here is how the wingtip vortices move apart from one another in the animation above. In flight, wingtip vortices usually stay roughly parallel to one another, but they drift downward in the aircraft’s wake. Near the ground, though, the vortices cannot move down, so instead ground effect forces them apart from one another, as seen here. (Image and video credit: E. Seguin; via Kelsey C.)

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