Friday, November 10, 2006

Wake turbulence

Airplane wing vortices. The link is to a rather dramatic shot showing wing-tip vortices caused by heavy aircraft. Now imagine an aircraft behind that man-made tornado-let, and you get the picture. [ does not allow use of their images on websites other than their own, so do click the link to see the picture.]

This week's Ask the pilot , Patrick Smith's masterful column at Salon focuses on wake turbulence.
At approximately 200 feet, only seconds from touchdown, with the approach-light stanchions below and the fat white stripes of the threshold just ahead, came a quick and unusual nudge -- as if we'd struck a pothole. Then, less than a second later, came the rest of it. Almost instantaneously, our 16,000-pound aircraft was up on one wing, in a 45-degree right bank.

"Get it!" I called out, reaching for the wheel. It was the first officer's leg to fly, but suddenly there were four hands at the yoke, turning it to the left as far as it would go. Even with full opposite aileron -- something seldom used in normal commercial flying -- the ship kept rolling to the right.

A feeling of helplessness, of lack of control, is part and parcel of nervous-flier psychology -- the fear that comes from being at the mercy of two unseen strangers, who you hope are competent, qualified and sober. It's an especially bad day when the pilots are experiencing the same uncertainty. There we were, hanging sideways in the sky just a few feet from death. Everything in our power was telling the plane to go left, and it insisted on going right.
Read the rest (you have to see a brief commercial to access Salon for free)! It's fascinating!

And no, this is extremely rare. And not to be confused with regular turbulence, which is normal, and cannot bring an aircraft down.

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