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Vortex Surfing Technique Conserves Fuel
10/24/2012

Two Air Force C-17 planes prepare to take off in tight formation as part of a test of vortex surfing. The technique is similar to bicycle racers or migrating birds forming tight groups to conserve energy. (Source: Air Force Research Lab)
Two Air Force C-17 planes prepare to take off in tight formation as part of a test of vortex surfing. The technique is similar to bicycle racers or migrating birds forming tight groups to conserve energy.
(Source: Air Force Research Lab)

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Elizabeth M
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Great feedback
Elizabeth M   11/5/2012 12:32:23 PM
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It's really interesting to hear especially from the pilots about this concept. I, too, wondered about the dangers of wake turbulence, having seen some television shows and read articles about it. I imagine it's a tricky balance to maintain the right distance and formation to leverage the vortex without putting either craft in danger, as TJ pointed out. I'm not a pilot or an engineer, but I imagine, too, using aircrafts of similar weight makes this safe as well.

kenish
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Re: Turbulence vs. Reduced Drag
kenish   10/26/2012 1:55:46 PM
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I'm a private pilot...planes are separated for wake turbulence.  "Heavy" aircraft >300k pounds are given extra separation.  If you listen to ATC radio chatter you might hear a flight call in as "United 15 Heavy".  After a wake turbulence accident in Orange County involving a business jet,  NASA testing discovered 757's have a very strong wake due to the high lift wing and full span flaps.  (Requirement for the 757 was transcon range out of La Guardia and Orange County...both have very short runways)  BTW, the 757 has the highest thrust/weight ratio of any airliner except Concorde.  A full-thrust takeoff in a 757 from SNA followed by the noise abatement power cut at 1000 feet is always exciting :)

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Re: Turbulence vs. Reduced Drag
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   10/25/2012 4:50:46 PM
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Yes, that's exactly the scenario I'm thinking of.  And yes, my Dad used to say exactly that - at least two minutes pause on the tarmac prior to positioning for the take-off.

TJ McDermott
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Re: Turbulence vs. Reduced Drag
TJ McDermott   10/25/2012 11:06:09 AM
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Drafting is a little different than vortex surfing, I think.  The paragraph immediately after the image describes it best.  Riding the vortex increases lift (think higher pressure on the lower surface of the wing).

Drafting vehicles try to avoid the vortices.

And yes, vortices from larger aircraft can be incredibly dangerous for smaller craft.  Some aircraft more than others - I've read that a Boeing 757's vortices are notable and it's worth it for small aircraft to wait more than 2 minutes before taking off after a 757.

Charles Murray
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Re: Turbulence vs. Reduced Drag
Charles Murray   10/24/2012 6:24:14 PM
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I'm not a pilot, either, JimT, but since you have a connection to the aviation world, I have a question for you: Could the phenomenon being described here also be known as "wake turbulence?" Isn't that considered dangerous?

Beth Stackpole
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Re: Turbulence vs. Reduced Drag
Beth Stackpole   10/24/2012 2:19:36 PM
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Definitely a well-known trick in the world of racing and bike racing. We did a post on a CFD study conduced by Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands, to analyze the drafting effects of cyclists in more detail. Specifically, they were examining the air resistance on the leading rider.

 

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Turbulence vs. Reduced Drag
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   10/24/2012 12:41:23 PM
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I'm not a pilot but my Dad was; and I specifically remember him talking about dangers of flying into the turbulence of a vortex from a larger plane, particularly on the runways during T-O & L .  Maybe using like-sized planes (2 C17's in this example) reduces or eliminates that danger, but I know just from freeway driving that 18-wheeler vortex's cause unseen forces on your stability.  On the contrary, the NASCAR crowd often quips, "I ain't tail-gatin' – I'm DRAFTING!" -- so it's a well-known trick – now applied to the skies.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Innovative Idea
Rob Spiegel   10/24/2012 11:43:58 AM
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This is a great idea. Yet another advance borrowed from dynamics in nature. Geese get even more out of the system by rotating which goose has the more difficult drag and placing the weakest goose in the high glide position.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: Innovative Idea
Beth Stackpole   10/24/2012 9:26:47 AM
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Agreed, Greg. Given some of the issues with air traffic control and the ungodly backlog of planes at US hub destinations, we don't need to throw vortexing into the mix to complicate aircraft safety.

Greg M. Jung
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Innovative Idea
Greg M. Jung   10/24/2012 7:45:22 AM
Great idea that can be implemented by the Air Force quickly.  (However, let's not do this for our passenger jets...)

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