The air flow from the wing of this agricultural plane is made by a technique
that uses colored smoke rising from the ground. The swirl at the wingtip traces
the aircraft's wake vortex, which exerts a powerful influence on the flow field
behind the plane. Because of wake vortex, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
requires aircraft to maintain set distances behind each other when they land.
A joint NASA-FAA program aimed at boosting airport capacity, however, is aimed
at determining conditions under which planes may fly closer together.
NASA researchers are studying wake vortex with a variety of tools, from supercomputers
to wind tunnels to actual flight tests in research aircraft. Their goal is to
fully understand the phenomenon, then use that knowledge to create an automated system
that could predict changing wake vortex conditions at airports. Pilots already know,
for example, that they have to worry less about wake vortex in rough weather because
windy conditions cause them to dissipate more rapidly.