Jet Wake Turbulence: Distance Ain’t Enough.

Sneaking up behind me, are you? Here’s an infrared view you might need to heed: not the hotspots, but powerful the twin horizontal corkscrews of air current swirling off the wingtips of my jet. They’re wily, dangerous, and not to be trusted.

According to the Flight Safety Foundation, the vortices from a jet can have an internal rotation of up to 300 feet per second and often extend between 2 and 10 nautical miles behind a jet aircraft. The twin tornadoes–that’s literally what they are, horizontal but spinning powerfully–sink at a variable rate, between 300 and 500 feet per minute to an altitude  between 500 and 900 feet below the aircraft’s flight path and can persist for three or more minutes depending on the meteorological conditions.

That’s the problem, but hardly the full situation. Add to this hazard the closely constrained flight path of jet traffic in terminal areas. For instance:

SFO Q bridge

Approaching from the east, you’ll have a traffic stream from the west as well converging on the same runway complex. Not unusual as far as airports go–except that San Francisco International has less than the standard distance separating the two parallel runways. The FAA has waived the normal lateral separation, but you’d better keep that in mind nonetheless because that also means less than normal separation from the vortices of the aircraft next to you. Remember the outward spreading motion of those two tornadoes?

747 BAThis guy could be your dance partner all the way down final–and if he’s next to you, you aren’t entitled to the separation you’d get if he were ahead of you. Mostly, ATC will “advise” you to “use caution” for the heavy on the west runway, workload and time permitting–but they don’t have to.

And time and workload may not permit any advanced warning, and adverse weather can shroud the entire scene anyway:

SEA 16CLook at the inset on the bottom right corner: Seattle (one of my favorite destination cities!) has three parallel runways grouped together, and you won’t be told which of the three runways you’re landing on until you turn base to final about three minutes from touchdown. Would it make sense or even be possible to keep you informed of the heavies on all three inbound tracks? Add to the mix the typically obscured Seattle visibility, plus the added workload of programming and validating the FMS  sytem approach waypoints at the last second demanded by the late runway assignment and is there a possibility of situational awareness overload, on final approach: was that a heavy in front of us? Or on the outboard runway?


Bring that back to San Francisco, where the standard runway separation is “waived,” like in MSP and many other cities. Now you’ve got a “buddy” laterally whose wake turbulence is drifting outwardly–just as yours is–and just because he’s not a “heavy” doesn’t mean he can’t roll you.

The ICAO worldwide “recommendation” for separation between a “heavy” and a “medium” following aircraft  (say, a 747 and a 737) is 5 NM (9.3 KM); between two heavies, 4 NM (7.4 KM). But the wild card not even mentioned in the separation rules is configuration and maneuvering: simply put, a “dirty” jet (flaps, gear) creates a nastier wake than a “clean” jet, and maneuvering distorts weight. That is, if I level off my 160,000 pound 737 with an addition one-half “G” force, I add to the effective weight another 40 tons of effect. And we’re a medium jet–imagine a heavy maneuvering dirty adding to his effective weight and wake.

That’s the science, now here comes the art. You know the reported winds at the field, but that’s a red herring: your encounter with wake turbulence won’t happen on the field. You need to be aware of the winds on approach, at your altitude. If the lateral wind at your altitude is blowing into the other jet’s wake, here’s what can happen: if the drift equals the outward spread momentum of the wake–and you have to figure the “dirty,” “maneuvering” wild cards mentioned above–the effect will either be to move the wake away more rapidly, or freeze it in place till it dissipates. Which is it?

You can’t see wake turbulence. You can’t be sure where it is, or know it’s strength based solely on the aircraft designation. And sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in it despite your best, most diligent precautions. What are you going to do, captain?

dusk b

For a true jethead like me, the first answer is always speed–but not so fast (pun intended): you’re configured with restrictive maximum flap speeds. If you’re in a final configuration with 40 degrees of flaps, you’re limited to 162 knots max. But the second instinct is valid: power.

throttle bugeye

But power alone is only part of the answer: what you’re not doing is going down. Why not? Because we know the vorticies are sinking. If we remain level or climb, we’ll escape the effects. What are they?

The Flight Safety Foundation survey of hundreds of wake turbulence encounters reveals uncommanded roll in trailing aircraft of up to 45 degrees at altitudes below 1,000 above the ground. One thousand feet is another magic number at my airline: stabilized approach  (on speed, on altitude, power set) is mandatory from 1,000 feet to touchdown. On glidepath–not above or below; not accelerating or decelerating, power set to flown speed and stable. And certainly wings level.

Which brings up the next problem of two major headaches you’ll instantly own. First, the right amount of counter-aileron, even if applied prudently, in many jets will bring up the wing spoilers to drop the low wing rapidly, inducing adverse drag, requiring more power.

Second, the option of climbing or even flying level is constrained by the published missed approach: protected airspace may be below you if you are above the missed approach altitude. And laterally, not only is there often parallel traffic, there’s also dangerous terrain you must always monitor and stay clear of:


If you encounter wake effects in a level portion of the approach segment, prior to the aircraft ahead descending, at least you know his vortices will descend eventually below you and in this case, you normally feel the “burble” which now cues you: if the winds are keeping his wake aligned with your flight path, on glidepath you’re likely to fly into the tornadoes again when you’re slow and configured with speed-restricting flaps. Now look at the “mileage separation:” still think distance alone is enough? Still committing to the glidepath?

All of that doesn’t even consider the added, inevitable spoiler in every approach: weather. There’s more than terrain and aircraft for you to avoid in a very constrained airspace.


There’s really only one good answer: up. And “up” may be a s simple as “no more down,” meaning a stopped descent or a slight climb to exit the effects. In any case, if you’re below 1,000 feet you’re no longer “stable” per the mandatory requirements. If you’re above 1,000 feet, you’ve just been cued that the mileage interval, given the meteorological conditions, nonetheless has left you vulnerable to the adverse effects of wake turbulence–and you’re not going to proceed.

Which means, in the immortal words of my old friend the Chief Pilot at my airline addressing my 1991 class of Captain’s “Charm School” (officially, “Captain’s Duties & Responsibilities”) as we sat rapt: you’re going to “get the hell out of town.” Amen.


Back in the cabin? Expect the usual complaints about the delay for the second approach, plus a regular dose of exaggerated “there I was” tales about their wake turbulence encounter. So, don’t tell them–if you’ve done your avoidance and even escape properly, they’ll never know you even had a problem, which is the ultimate goal anyway: detecting and avoiding the problem in the first place.

The end result is, what they don’t know won’t hurt them, because you won’t let it. And that’s kind of why you get the privilege of flying the jet in the first place, isn’t it?



31 Responses to “Jet Wake Turbulence: Distance Ain’t Enough.”

  1. All this but no thoughts on the new logo?

  2. Jerry Sterner Says:

    Aw c’mon Captain, say something controversial about the logo,you can do it I know you can. Just kidding, another great post.

  3. peggywillenberg Says:

    Interesting. In recent years it seems most commercial jets have added canards to the wingtips, presumably to save fuel? Have the canards had an impact on the magnitude of wingtip vortices? And does the low-level shear detection equipment at most airports ever pick up on this turbulence?

    • I don’t know about the effect of the winglets on wake turbulence, but that’s a very good point: they reduce drag by smoothing the ragged mix of boundary air mixing at the wingtips, so that has to change the characteristics of the vortices, but how, I don’t know. Supposedly the winglets hold the wing more rigid and so make the ride a little less smooth, but I’ve never flown a 737 without winglets (all AA 737s & 757s have winglets, plus many 767s as well) so I can’t compare.

      I’ve never heard of LLWSDS reporting any voritices, but they may. Good questions.

  4. its great. hope more paxs read this.

  5. Reblogged this on Life As I See It. and commented:
    I love this blog. Great insight for the average traveller that has no idea what goes on from the flight deck.

  6. Fascinating as always. In my innocence I thought the winglets got rid of the turbulance altogher! Not just from the wing itself. Thanks for the insight. I hope one day to ride in a cockpit again. I haven’t done it sice way before 9/11. I’ll be fascinated forever!:)

  7. Tom Seagraves Says:

    Another great post Captain. I always hope the guy sitting in the front left seat on each flight I take is as capable and careful as you.

    In the current issue of Flying Magazine, Les Abend, a 777 Captain with your airline wrote a great column about getting slapped around by wake turbulence from an Airbus A380 over the Atlantic. Having just read that it made this post even more interesting for me. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

    • The 380 is monstrous–makes me wonder about RVSM vertical spacing of 1,000 feet vertically and the chance of a jet on the airway below getting a faceful of drift down vortices from the 380. Eventually, someone’s going to have that unlucky experience.

  8. AA Retired Says:

    Wake turbulence………. cue the theme from Jaws! However I have a non wake question. What is the location of the last photo in the blog? Looks familiar, but I can’t place it. Thanks

  9. Mike in YPPH Says:

    A great post Chris, very interesting. How does the whole wake turbulence thing work with air-to-air refuelling? Do aircraft have to take a specific approach path to the tanker?

    All the best for 2013!

    • After a rendezvous, as receiver aircraft you approach the tanker from a thousand feet below and about 5 miles behind. You basically fly up a shallow line to a stable position fifty feet below and about as far behind, then the tanker boom plugs you from above. You exit slowly back and down after you get your offload.

      I’ve refueled off of a KC-10 (DC-10-30) and if you stray outboard too far, the tanker vortices gently rumble you back toward center.

      Careful in, careful out; no problem.

      • Mike in YPPH Says:

        I’m tempted to say that refuelling off a KC-10 would be quite the experience for anyone who loves planes, but then it would be quite a different experience for anyone actually flying it! The concentration required must be phenomenal.

      • Not really harder than refueling behind a -135 and in some ways easier: the -10 had a better, more accurate set of PDLs (pilot director lights) on the keel.

      • Mike in YPPH Says:

        The KC-10 might have had the PDL’s, but the original -135’s had 4 big smoke trails!

      • Not really at altitude, and smoke doesn’t help you maintain the contact position as receiver. The -10 PDLs were more elaborate and more accurate. Boomers used to ask us to run the limits while in contact on the -135 to check their PDLS accuracy, which often was lacking.

  10. Lego Spaceman Says:

    Does wake turbulence affect takeoff performance as well?

    • Probably not “performance” as we mean it, which refers to speeds and lift, but definitely aircraft handling is affected. For instance yesterday we took off behind another 737 that seemed to have the same climb path as we did. Remember, vortices don’t form until rotation; anyway, on climbout, I had to fight the roll from their vortices because I guess the winds were either calm or straight on the nose. Rough ride and constant roll moment I had to counter with ailerons until our vertical paths diverged.

  11. Well written and explained. I love the graphic because it tells some of the key aspects to understanding the wake turbulence. I have stood at Gravelly Point (planes landing at DCA) and listened to the sounds of the vortices as the planes fly over our heads. Great blog and great post!

  12. Another reason why I do not have a throttle in my hand. 😉

  13. This article reminds me of an incident several years ago at LAX. I was in the back – like 32A or so – in a SWA 737 from SMF to LAX and noticed as we entered the LAX area pattern a big 747 (I think it was a Korean or Phillipines plane from the tail logo as I recall it now years later off the lefthand side of our plane and slightly above at maybe 10 o’clock. The SWA 737 was merging left and slower than the 747 so as to wind up in trail behind it eventually. Well, I was aware of wake turbulence, so when the first jolts hit the plane I thought “no problem, been through this before”. Then the plane rolled left and I am looking down at a 30 degree angle and getting steeper. I notice the airleron at full down deflection, but we’re still steepening the roll angle – now at least 60 degrees. This roll is slowing but relentless. Passengers are starting to panic and soon I am looking straight down at the streets of LA perpendicular to the wing – looking like 90 degrees. This seemed to have taken 30 seconds, but I suppose it was maybe half to a third that. Then we rolled back up and the turbulence was mostly gone.

    Not a word from the cockpit or attendants about it. In another 5-10 minutes we were on final and the Inglewood dogtrack/casino was passing by and then we were landed and taxiing. Never a word about the rather strange and harrowing 90 degree bank over the streets of northern LA or maybe Pasadena. But I will never forget that view straight down parallel to the wing and perpendicular to the streets below.

  14. Chris – check out this YT video that very nicely demonstrates, visually, wingtip vorticies forming in fog:

  15. jamesaydelott Says:

    Very good write up, amigo. At least in a spam-can, I have less pressure to keep flying toward a potential encounter in cruise or landing.

    On take-off, I can be up in less space than the big iron, and can ask for either an early turnout, or ask for wait.

    It’s nothing to screw with. A Delta DC-9 went down at Greater Southwest on a training flight in the 70s after a WTV encounter.

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