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Wake turbulence


Wake turbulence

This picture from a NASA study on wingtip vortices qualitatively illustrates the wake turbulence.

Wake turbulence is turbulence that forms behind an aircraft as it passes through the air. This turbulence includes various components, the most important of which are wingtip vortices and jetwash. Jetwash refers simply to the rapidly moving gases expelled from a jet engine; it is extremely turbulent, but of short duration. Wingtip vortices, on the other hand, are much more stable and can remain in the air for up to three minutes after the passage of an aircraft.

Wingtip vortices occur when a wing is generating lift. Air from below the wing is drawn around the wingtip into the region above the wing by the lower pressure above the wing, causing a vortex to trail from each wingtip. Wake turbulence exists in the vortex flow behind the wing. The strength of wingtip vortices is determined primarily by the weight and airspeed of the aircraft.[1] Wingtip vortices make up the primary and most dangerous component of wake turbulence.

Lift is generated by high pressure below the wing and low pressure above the wing. As the high-pressure air moves around the wingtip to the low pressure, (high pressure always moves towards lower pressure areas) the air rotates, or creates a horizontal "tornado" behind the wings. This tornado sinks lower and lower until it dissipates.

Wake turbulence is especially hazardous in the region behind an aircraft in the takeoff or landing phases of flight. During take-off and landing, aircraft operate at high angle of attack. This flight attitude maximizes the formation of strong vortices. In the vicinity of an airport there can be multiple aircraft, all operating at low speed and low height, and this provides extra risk of wake turbulence with reduced height from which to recover from any upset.


  • Fixed wing – level flight 1
  • Helicopters 2
  • Parallel or crossing runways 3
  • Hazard avoidance 4
    • Wake vortex separation 4.1
    • Wake Turbulence Recategorization Separation Standards 4.2
    • Staying on or above leader's glide path 4.3
    • Warning signs 4.4
  • Incidents involving wake turbulence 5
  • Measurement 6
  • Audibility 7
  • In popular culture 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Fixed wing – level flight

At altitude, vortices sink at a rate of 90 to 150 metres per minute and stabilize about 150 to 270 metres below the flight level of the generating aircraft. For this reason, aircraft operating greater than 600 metres above the terrain are considered to be at less risk.[2]


Helicopters also produce wake turbulence. Helicopter wakes may be of significantly greater strength than those from a fixed wing aircraft of the same weight. The strongest wake can occur when the helicopter is operating at lower speeds (20 to 50 knots). Some mid-size or executive class helicopters produce wake as strong as that of heavier helicopters. This is because two blade main rotor systems, typical of lighter helicopters, produce stronger wake than rotor systems with more blades. The strong rotor wake of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor can extend beyond the description in the manual, which contributed to a crash.[3]

Parallel or crossing runways

During takeoff and landing, an aircraft's wake sinks toward the ground and moves laterally away from the runway when the wind is calm. A 3 to 5 knot crosswind will tend to keep the upwind side of the wake in the runway area and may cause the downwind side to drift toward another runway. Since the wingtip vortices exist at the outer edge of an airplane's wake, this can be dangerous.

Hazard avoidance

Wake vortex separation

Wake vortices from a landing Airbus at Oakland Airport interact with the sea as they descend to ground level.

ICAO mandates separation minima based upon wake vortex categories that are, in turn, based upon the Maximum Take Off Mass (MTOW|MTOM) of the aircraft.

These minima are typically categorised as follows:[4]

  • Light – MTOW of 7,000 kilograms (15,000 lb) or less;
  • Medium – MTOW of greater than 7,000 kilograms, but less than 136,000 kilograms (300,000 lb);
  • Heavy – MTOW of 136,000 kilograms (300,000 lb) or greater.

There are a number of separation criteria for take-off, landing and en-route phases of flight based upon these categories. Air Traffic Controllers will sequence aircraft making instrument approaches with regard to these minima. Aircraft making a visual approach are advised of the relevant recommended spacing and are expected to maintain their own separation.

The FAA does not use the ICAO categories for wake turbulence separation, instead using the following:[5]

  • Super - A separate designation that currently only refers to the Airbus A380[6]
  • Heavy - Aircraft capable of takeoff weights of 300,000 pounds (140,000 kg) or more whether or not they are operating at this weight during a particular phase of flight.
  • Large - Aircraft of more than 41,000 pounds (19,000 kg), maximum certificated takeoff weight, up to but not including 300,000 pounds (140,000 kg) .
  • Small – Aircraft of 41,000 pounds (19,000 kg) or less maximum certificated takeoff weight.

Common minima are:


An aircraft of a lower wake vortex category must not be allowed to take off less than two minutes behind an aircraft of a higher wake vortex category. If the following aircraft does not start its take off roll from the same point as the preceding aircraft, this is increased to three minutes.

Preceding aircraft Following aircraft Minimum radar separation
Super Super 4 NM
Heavy 6 NM
Large 7 NM
Small 8 NM
Heavy Heavy 4 NM
Large 5 NM
Small 6 NM
Large Small 4 NM

Wake Turbulence Recategorization Separation Standards

In 2012 the FAA authorized Memphis, Tennessee air traffic controllers to begin applying revised criteria,[8] which retained the previous weight categories but also addressed differences in approach speeds and wing configuration. This resulted in six categories of aircraft, and the revised spacing allowed among these categories was soon shown to increase airport capacity.[9]

With the largest global wake database, EUROCONTROL has developed advanced wake metrics to set up the European six category wake turbulence separation minima, RECAT-EU, as an alternative to the long established ICAO PANS-ATM categories, in order to safely support an increase in runway throughput at airports in Europe. RECAT-EU also integrates a Super Heavy category for the Airbus A380 bringing runway capacity benefits of up to 8% or more during peak traffic periods. As part of the wake turbulence recategorisation separation review, SESAR partners EUROCONTROL and NATS have developed RECAT-EU from the long understood concept of Time based separation (TBS).[10]

Following approval by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), RECAT-EU is to be initially deployed at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport by end-2015.[11] [12] [13]

Eurocontrol plans to move beyond RECAT EU onto a more granular separation matrix whereby precise separations for each of an initial 115 common commercial aircraft are defined by model in a 'Pair Wise Separation' (PWS) system.

These separation matrices known as Recat 2 and Recat 3 are to be deployed in European airports towards 2020 and 2022 respectively. [14]

Staying on or above leader's glide path

Incident data shows that the greatest potential for a wake vortex incident occurs when a light aircraft is turning from base to final behind a heavy aircraft flying a straight-in approach. Light aircraft pilots must use extreme caution and intercept their final approach path above or well behind the heavier aircraft's path. When a visual approach following a preceding aircraft is issued and accepted, the pilot is required to establish a safe landing interval behind the aircraft he was instructed to follow. The pilot is responsible for wake turbulence separation. Pilots must not decrease the separation that existed when the visual approach was issued unless they can remain on or above the flight path of the preceding aircraft.

Warning signs

Any uncommanded aircraft movements (such as wing rocking) may be caused by wake. This is why maintaining situational awareness is critical. Ordinary turbulence is not unusual, particularly in the approach phase. A pilot who suspects wake turbulence is affecting his or her aircraft should get away from the wake, execute a missed approach or go-around and be prepared for a stronger wake encounter. The onset of wake can be insidious and even surprisingly gentle. There have been serious accidents where pilots have attempted to salvage a landing after encountering moderate wake only to encounter severe wake turbulence that they were unable to overcome. Pilots should not depend on any aerodynamic warning, but if the onset of wake is occurring, immediate evasive action is vital.

Incidents involving wake turbulence

XB-70 62-0207 following the midair collision on 8 June 1966.
  • 8 June 1966 - an XB-70 collided with an F-104. Though the true cause of the collision is unknown, it is believed that due to the XB-70 being designed to have an enhanced wake turbulence to increase lift, the F-104 moved too close, therefore getting caught in the vortex and colliding with the wing (see main article).
  • 30 May 1972 - A DC-9 crashed at the Greater Southwest International Airport while performing "touch and go" landings behind a DC-10. This crash prompted the FAA to create new rules for minimum following separation from "heavy" aircraft.
  • 15 December 1993 - a chartered aircraft with five people on board, including In-N-Out Burger's president, Rich Snyder, crashed several miles before John Wayne Airport. The aircraft was following a Boeing 757 for landing, became caught in its wake turbulence, rolled into a deep descent and crashed.
  • 8 September 1994 - USAir Flight 427 crashed near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This accident was believed to involve wake turbulence, though the primary cause was a defective rudder control component.
  • 20 September 1999 - A JAS 39A Gripen from Airwing F 7 Såtenäs crashed into Lake Vänern in Sweden during an air combat maneuvering exercise. After passing through the wake vortex of the other aircraft, the Gripen abruptly changed course, and pilot Capt. Rickard Mattsson, got a highest-severity warning from the ground-collision warning system. He ejected from the aircraft, and landed safely by parachute in the lake.
  • 12 November 2001 - An Airbus A300 crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, New York shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport. This accident was attributed to pilot error in the presence of wake turbulence from a Boeing 747, that resulted in rudder failure and subsequent separation of the vertical stabilizer.
  • 8 July 2008 - A US Air Force PC-12 trainer crashed at Hurlburt Field, Fla., because the pilot tried to land too closely behind a larger AC-130U Spooky gunship and got caught in the gunship’s wake turbulence. Air Force rules require at least a two-minute separation between slow-moving heavy planes like the AC-130U and small, light planes, but the PC-12 trailed the gunship by about 40 seconds. As the PC-12 hit the wake turbulence, it suddenly rolled to the left and began to turn upside down. The instructor pilot stopped the roll, but before he could get the plane upright, the left wing struck the ground, sending the plane skidding 669 feet across a field before stopping on a paved overrun.[15]
  • 3 November 2008 - Airbus A380 wake turbulence event, Sydney Airport, Australia. Wake turbulence of an Airbus A380-800 causing temporary loss of control to a Saab 340 on approach to a parallel runway during high crosswind conditions.[16]
  • 4 November 2008 - Mexican Government LearJet 45 XC-VMC, carrying Mexican Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mouriño, crashed near Paseo de la Reforma Avenue before turning for final approach to runway 05R at Mexico City International Airport. The airplane was flying behind a 767-300 and above a heavy helicopter. The pilots were not told about the type of plane that was approaching before them, nor did they reduce to minimum approach speed. (This has been confirmed as the official stance by the Mexican Government as stated by Luiz Tellez, the Secretary of Communications of Mexico.)
  • On 28 March 2014, Indian Air Force C-130J-30 KC-3803 crashed near Gwalior, India, killing all 5 personnel aboard.[17][18][19] The aircraft was conducting low level penetration training by flying at around 300 ft when it ran into wake turbulence from another aircraft in the formation, which caused it to crash.[20]


Wake turbulence can be measured using several techniques. Currently, ICAO recognizes 2 methods of measurement, sound tomography, and a high-resolution technique is Doppler lidar, a solution now commercially available. Techniques using optics can use the effect of turbulence on refractive index (optical turbulence) to measure the distortion of light that passes through the turbulent area and indicate the strength of that turbulence.


A subtle rustling and cracking sound caused by the wake vortices after airplane flyover. It starts at 0'50 and lasts to the end of the recording.

Problems playing this file? See .

Wake turbulence can occasionally, under the right conditions, be heard by ground observers.[21] On a still day, the wake turbulence from heavy jets on landing approach can be heard as a dull roar or whistle. This is the strong core of the vortex. If the aircraft produces a weaker vortex, the breakup will sound like tearing a piece of paper. Often, it is first noticed some seconds after the direct noise of the passing aircraft has diminished. The sound then gets louder. Nevertheless, being highly directional, wake turbulence sound is easily perceived as originating a considerable distance behind the aircraft, its apparent source moving across the sky just as the aircraft did. It can persist for 30 seconds or more, continually changing timbre, sometimes with swishing and cracking notes, until it finally dies away.

In popular culture

In the 1986 film Top Gun, Lieutenant Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, played by Tom Cruise, suffers two flameouts caused by passing through the jetwash of another aircraft, piloted by fellow aviator Tom Kazansky (played by Val Kilmer). Maverick enters an unrecoverable spin as a result, and is forced to eject. In a subsequent incident, he is caught in an enemy fighter's jet wash, but manages to recover safely.

In the movie Pushing Tin, air traffic controllers stand just off the threshold of a runway while an aircraft lands, in order to experience wake turbulence firsthand. However, the film dramatically exaggerates the effect of turbulence on persons standing on the ground, showing the protagonists being blown about by the passing aircraft. In reality, the turbulence behind and below a landing aircraft is too gentle to knock over a person standing on the ground. (In contrast, jet blast from an aircraft taking off can be extremely dangerous to people standing behind the aircraft.)

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ [4] Jump Seat (FLYING column by Boeing 777 captain Les Abend) described an upset incident when his B777 was high above the Atlantic Ocean, as it interacted with a heavy Airbus airliner several miles ahead and slightly above his track.
  3. ^ "AFSOC Crash Report Faults Understanding Of Osprey Rotor Wake." AOL Defense, 30 August 2012.
  4. ^ 
  5. ^ FAA ORDER JO 7110.65U (PDF), 9 February 2012, p. PCG A−6, retrieved 29 April 2012 
  6. ^ FAA ORDER N JO 7110.478 (PDF), 1 October 2008, p. PCG A−6, retrieved 29 April 2012 
  7. ^ "New guidelines show shorter A380 separation distances". Flight International. 22 August 2008. Archived from the original on 5 September 2008. Retrieved 6 September 2008. 
  8. ^ [5] FAA Letter "Subject: Recategorization (RECAT) of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Wake Turbulence Separation Categories at Memphis International Airport (MEM)"
  9. ^ [6] Flying, Revised Wake Turbulence Categories Increase Airport Capacity
  10. ^ "Time based separation". EUROCONTROL. 
  11. ^ "Wake Vortex". EUROCONTROL. 
  13. ^ "RECAT-EU Infographic". EUROCONTROL. 
  14. ^ "RECAT-EU Pair Wise Separation (Recat 2) and Dynamic Pair Wise Separation (Recat 3)". EUROCONTROL. 
  15. ^ Crash Blamed on Pilots Following Too Closely, Air Force Times, Oct. 17, 2008
  16. ^ ATSB Report
  17. ^ "Air Force's new C-130J aircraft crashes near Gwalior, five killed". 
  18. ^ "IAF Super Hercules Crash: 5 crew member Air Force Personnel killed in Gwalior". IANS. Retrieved 28 March 2014. 
  19. ^ "IAF's C130 J "Super Hercules" transport aircraft crashes, all five personnel on board dead". The Economic Times. 
  20. ^ "‘Wake turbulence’ led to C-130 J aircraft crash".  
  21. ^ (PDF) 

External links

  • Captain Meryl Getline explains "Heavy"
  • U.S. FAA, The Aeronautical Information Manual on Wake Turbulence
  • Aircraft ClassesU.S. FAA, Pilot Controller Glossary, see
  • Wake Turbulence, An Invisible Enemy
  • Photographs of Wake turbulence
  • NASA Dryden - Wake Vortex Research
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