If you are flying your aircraft behind another aircraft, you are at risk of experiencing wake turbulence caused by the chaotic movement of air following the plane in front. As planes travel through the atmosphere, their wing shapes and engines generate vortices and jet wash respectively, both of which cause irregular movement of air. If one aircraft is too close to another, it may travel through these irregular air patterns before they have time to dissipate. This leads the rear of the aircraft to experience turbulence in the wake of the aircraft in the front. For your safety and better knowledge, this blog will cover the causes of wake turbulence and how to avoid it depending on your aircraft’s weight and flight path.
As mentioned before, wake turbulence can be caused by both the wings and the engines of aircraft. In fixed-wing aircraft, wake turbulence is primarily generated by counter-rotating wingtip vortices. When high-pressure air under the wings moves around the wingtips, it swirls up into the lower pressure air on top creating a vortex. Vortices become more pronounced when the aircraft is experiencing a high angle of attack, such as during takeoff or landing. Meanwhile, jet engines may also produce wake turbulence in the form of jet streams, which cause rough bumps in a linear stream behind the aircraft. While any aircraft can face dangerous situations caused by wake turbulence, smaller aircraft will face greater risks, and larger aircraft will generate more turbulence. The size difference between the two planes determines the intensity of turbulence experienced by the one in the rear. On this principle, there are a few ways aircraft can stay safe from wake turbulence.
As very strong wake turbulence can cause a rolling moment that exceeds the roll-control authority of the following plane, wake turbulence can cause serious damage. For this reason, it is wise to understand the weight categories of aircraft as a means to avoid disaster. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) uses Wake Turbulence Categories (WTC) to divide aircraft into three weight categories: light, medium, and heavy. Light aircraft are less than 7,000 kg and should be separated from medium aircraft by 5 nautical miles and separated from heavy aircraft by 6 nautical miles. Medium aircraft are between 7,000 and 136,000 kg and must be 5 nautical miles behind heavy aircraft, those of which are above 136,000 kg. Furthermore, the Wake Turbulence Recategorization (RECAT) is currently accounting for factors such as speed and wingspan in causing turbulence, as slower planes with large wingspans generate greater vortices.
In addition to spacing, timing can be used during takeoffs and landings to help avoid wake turbulence. For example, when departing after a larger aircraft, one should rotate prior to that aircraft’s rotation point since vortices are generated starting at the rotation point and remain above the larger plane’s path as you make your ascent. Respectively, when landing behind a larger aircraft, one should stay above that plane’s final approach flight path and to land beyond its touchdown point. Furthermore, light aircraft must land no sooner than 3 minutes and take off no sooner than 2 minutes after a medium or heavy aircraft, and medium aircraft must land and take off at least 2 minutes behind heavy aircraft.
Despite one’s best attempts, there is always a risk of experiencing wake turbulence, so it is important for a pilot to know how to recover. First, one should reduce angle of attack by pushing the yoke forward and adding power. Then, one should use ailerons as needed to null the roll and climb to regain lost altitude. Finally, if wake turbulence occurs during an approach to landing, do a go around rather than attempt to salvage the landing and risk crossing the wake of the preceding aircraft again.
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