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How To Avoid Wake Turbulence

Wake Turbulence - Approaching 757 berkuspic/Flickr

When's the last time you heard "caution - wake turbulence" from an air traffic controller? Did you think about what it really meant to you? Pilots taking off and landing behind larger aircraft often hear the phrase, and it means that positioning your aircraft to avoid a potentially dangerous situation is extremely important.

Check out this video of a Cessna 172 encountering wake turbulence from a B-29 (yes, you read that right, a B-29). Has this ever happened to you?

If you've ever flown through wake turbulence, you probably have a new found respect for how quickly you can get into an upset attitude. So how can you avoid it entirely?

Avoiding Wake Turbulence On Landing

When following a larger aircraft on final approach, the key points the FAA recommends to avoid wake turbulence are:

  • Stay at or above the larger aircraft's final approach flight path.
  • Note the touchdown point, and land beyond it.

Here's why. When an aircraft is flying, the wingtip vortices produced by the aircraft slowly descend behind the airplane. When the aircraft touches down, the vortices end. By flying your airplane above their flight path, and landing beyond their touchdown point, you're almost guaranteed to avoid a wake turbulence encounter.

Landing - Avoid Wake Turbulence

Avoiding Wake Turbulence On Takeoff

Avoiding wake turbulence on takeoff is a bit trickier, because larger aircraft often climb much faster than small GA airplanes. Here's what the FAA has to say on avoiding wake turbulence on takeoff:

  • Rotate prior to the point at which the preceding aircraft rotated.
  • Maneuver your aircraft to avoid the flight path of the preceding aircraft.
Takeoff - Avoid Wake Turbulence

Because vortex production starts when an aircraft takes off, it's important for you to lift off prior to the point the previous aircraft did. However, after you've lifted off, problem #2 comes into play. Training airplanes don't climb nearly as fast as commercial jets, so if you maintain the same heading as the aircraft in front of you, the potential to fly through their wake is high. By maneuvering left or right of the runway after takeoff, you can ensure you'll stay clear of the vortices. So which direction should you turn?

Wind And Wake Turbulence On Takeoff

Wind is a key factor in avoiding wake turbulence because wingtip vortices drift with the wind, at same speed as the wind. The FAA states that "a wind speed of 10 knots causes the vortices to drift at about 1,000 feet in a minute in the wind direction." Because of this, you should turn your aircraft in the upwind direction after takeoff, if possible. Unfortunately, you may not always be able to maneuver left or right after takeoff, especially at busy airports. The good news is there's one final option: wait it out.

Takeoff - Avoid Wake By Maneuvering Upwind

The Final Option - Wait It Out

Wake turbulence doesn't last forever, and it begins dissipating as soon as it is produced by an airplane. The FAA says that "If a pilot is unsure of the other aircraft's takeoff or landing point, approximately 3 minutes provides a margin of safety that allows wake turbulence dissipation."

The next time you hear "caution - wake turbulence", take a second to think through what you need to do, and you'll keep yourself on upright and in smooth air.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at colin@boldmethod.com.

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