Wingtip Vortices Wingtip Vortices

 As we have already learned the action of the airfoil that gives an airplane lift also causes induced drag. The explanation of this was discussed in preceding sections of this chapter. It was determined that when a wing is flown at a positive angle of attack, a pressure differential exists between the upper and lower surfaces of the wing; that is - the pressure above the wing is less than atmospheric pressure and the pressure below the wing is equal to or greater than atmospheric pressure. Since air always moves from high pressure toward low pressure, and the path of least resistance is toward the airplane's wingtips, there is a spanwise movement of air from the bottom of the wing outward from the fuselage around the wingtips. This flow of air results in "spillage" over the wingtips, thereby setting up a whirlpool of air called a "vortex" (Fig. 17-17). At the same time the air on the upper surface of the wing has a tendency to flow in toward the fuselage and off the trailing edge. This air current forms a similar vortex at the inboard portion of the trailing edge of the wing, but because the fuselage limits the inward flow, the vortex is insignificant. Consequently, the deviation in flow direction is greatest at the wingtips where the unrestricted lateral flow is the strongest. As the air curls upward around the wingtip it combines with the wing's downwash to form a fast spinning trailing vortex. These vortices increase drag because of energy spent in producing the turbulence. It can be seen, then, that whenever the wing is producing lift, induced drag occurs, and wingtip vortices are created.

Just as lift increases with an increase in angle of attack, induced drag also increases. This occurs because as the angle of attack is increased, there is a greater pressure difference between the top and bottom of the wing, and a greater lateral flow of air; consequently, this causes more violent vortices to be set up, resulting in more turbulence and more induced drag.

The intensity or strength of the wingtip vortices is directly proportional to the weight of the airplane and inversely proportional to the wingspan and speed of the airplane. The heavier and slower the airplane, the greater the angle of attack and the stronger the wingtip vortices. Thus, an airplane will create wingtip vortices with maximum strength occurring during the takeoff, climb, and landing phases of flight.