The unseen airport killer: NASA works to mitigate the potentially deadly effects of wake vortex turbulence

HAMPTON, Va.-It has been a silent and unseen airport killer that can cause aircraft on takeoff and landing to hit sudden and violent turbulence and slam the aircraft into the ground before pilots have time to take evasive action.

It's called wake vortex turbulence, and is particularly a threat to relatively small aircraft operating in close proximity to large airliners and jumbo jets. Although the phenomenon is invisible to the human eye, researchers at NASA are trying to improve airport defenses against the potential deadly effects of wake vortex turbulence.

The cause of this violent force is powerful air currents that swirl backward and outward from the wings of flying aircraft. Among the most dangerous times are when aircraft are lifting off from the runway or on short final approach to the airport.

If a smaller aircraft follows too closely behind, that powerful swirling air can hit it with such force that it causes the pilot to lose control, or even flip the aircraft over too closely to the ground for its crew to recover quickly enough before a crash.

On 30 May 1972, Delta Air Lines flight 9570, a DC-9 narrow-body jetliner, crashed at the Greater Southwest International Airport in Fort Worth, Texas, while performing touch-and-go landings behind a much-larger DC-10 widebody.

This photo illustrates the force of wake vortex turbulence when air swirls off the wingtips of flying aircraft.
This photo illustrates the force of wake vortex turbulence when air swirls off the wingtips of flying aircraft.

The DC-9, which was landing behind the heavy DC-10, started to roll uncontrollably on short-final approach and struck the runway with its right wing, destroying the aircraft and killing the four people aboard. Investigators said wake vortex turbulence from the DC-10 caused the crash; as a result, the FAA created new rules for minimum following separation from large aircraft.

Years later on 15 Dec. 1993, a chartered business jet crashed and killed In-N-Out Burger President Rich Snyder and four others aboard while on approach to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. The small jet, which had been caught in wake vortex turbulence while following a Boeing 757 jetliner, rolled into a deep descent and crashed.

One of the most spectacular wake vortex turbulence aviation disasters in history happened in the New York area on 12 Nov. 2001-just two months after the 9-11 terrorist attack-when American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus A300, crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., shortly after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Investigators ruled pilot error as the primary cause of the crash when flight 587's pilot flew too closely to the wake turbulence of a Japan Airlines Boeing 747 heavy jet. The violent turbulence from the 747 tore the tail off American 587, investigators said, after crew members over-compensated with the jet's rudder to escape the sudden turbulence.

Researchers from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., are working together with atmospheric experts from Aerospace Innovations in Yorktown, Va., to develop technology that will give pilots a fighting chance against the effects of wake vortex turbulence. NASA Langley awarded Aerospace Innovations a $605,730 contract for the Atmospheric Environment Safety Technologies (AEST) project, which will investigate sources of atmospheric flight hazards like wake vortex turbulence and provide technologies to avoid or mitigate them.

The AEST project supports wake vortex research through the NASA Atmospheric Hazard Sensing & Mitigation program, which seeks to detect and understand wake vortex behavior to provide for safer runway operations, and help aircraft avoid in-flight turbulence. Results of this project may lead to improved airport sensors to give pilots early detection and awareness of potentially dangerous wake vortex turbulence.

FOR MORE INFORMATION visit Aero- space Innovations at

Get All the Military Aerospace Electronics News Delivered to Your Inbox or Your Mailbox

Subscribe to Military Aerospace Electronics Magazine or email newsletter today at no cost and receive the latest information on:

  • C4ISR
  • Cyber Security
  • Embedded Computing
  • Unmanned Vehicles

Get All the Military Aerospace Electronics News Delivered to Your Inbox or Your Mailbox

Subscribe to Military Aerospace Electronics Magazine or email newsletter today at no cost and receive the latest information on:

  • C4ISR
  • Cyber Security
  • Embedded Computing
  • Unmanned Vehicles

Military & Aerospace Photos

Most Popular Articles

Related Products

Flexible Printed Circuit Board

Flexible Printed Circuit Boards are one of the most popular types of circuit boards used in a var...

Rigid Printed Circuit Boards

Rigid printed circuit boards can only meet diverse industrial applications if the best materials ...

Printed Circuit Board Assembly

Printed Circuit Board Assembly (PCB ASSY) is as critical a process as circuit board manufacturing.

UniSlide® Stages

UniSlide Assemblies deliver precise movement in one, two or three dimensions with linear motion. ...

Velmex VXM™ Motor Controller

Velmex VXM Controller Systems are integral components of the power systems that efficiently drive...

Velmex XSlide™ Stages

The Velmex XSlide Assembly is a compact positioning stage highly suitable for high performance in...

BiSlide® Stages

Velmex manual or motorized BiSlide positioning stage's modular design makes it highly configurabl...

Micro Borescope Ultra Thin

German made, it is the best choice for extremely small inspection areas, with diameters as small ...

Video Borescope ORION

Ø 4mm (0.16”) to 10mm (0.44”)Working Lengths: up to 30 meters (98')3.5” color LCD display, with 7...

Rigid Video Borescope HERON-A with Tip Articulation

CMOS Camera Chip: 450,000 pixels 340° Rotation of the Probe Articulating Tip (180˚in each directi...

Related Companies


Provides customized Printed Circuit Board fabrication in California. The entire process can be customized according t...

Uniforce Sales and Engineering

Provides solutions to machine vision and image acquisition in many applications, including in the fields of medical, ...

Velmex Inc

Manufactures linear and rotary motion-control positioning equipment for scientific, research, photonics, machining an...

TASC Technical & Assembly Services Corporation Electronic Equipment Manufacturing

Electronic Manufacturing sub-contractor. Circuit Board assembly, Cable Assembly, Wire Harness Assembly, Box Build Ass...

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc

GA-ASI is a leading manufacturer of proven, reliable Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) systems, radars, and electro-opt...

BellowsTech LLC

Develops, designs and manufactures metal bellows using edge welded bellows technology. Expertise in design, machining...

Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions

About Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions (CWDS) is a long established techno...

Medit Inc

Supplies remote visual inspection devices. The company is one of the important players in the industry, serving clien...


Offers complete solutions for embedded software developers with a focus on mission- and safety-critical applications....

HC Controls Inc

Specialists in design, installation, commissioning, calibration, training and support services to aero engine test fa...
Wire News provided by   

Press Releases

Calibration services

Bonding and adhesives


Pelorus Naval Systems is a specialist naval defense engineering and support services company with headquarters in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, USA, in the greater Lo...


New Design Tools That Help You Develop Radar That Sees the Un-seeable and Detects the Undetectable

Xilinx EW/ISR System Architect, Luke Miller, has new tricks and he’s going to tell you all about them in a new Xilinx Webinar—for free. His Webinar will cover new ways to implement Radar functions including ...
Sponsored by:

All Access Sponsors

Mil & Aero Magazine

June 2015
Volume 26, Issue 6

Download Our Apps




Follow Us On...


Military & Aerospace Electronics

Weekly newsletter covering technical content, breaking news and product information

Cyber Security

Monthly newsletter covering cyber warfare, cyber security, information warfare, and information security technologies, products, contracts, and procurement opportunities

Defense Executive

Monthly newsletter covering business news and strategic insights for executive managers

Electronic Warfare

Quarterly newsletter covering technologies and applications in electronic warfare, cyber warfare, optical warfare, and spectrum warfare.

Embedded Computing Report

Monthly newsletter covering news on embedded computing in aerospace, defense and industrial-rugged applications

Unmanned Vehicles

Monthly newsletter covering news updates for designers of unmanned vehicles