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Ground Effect: What Really Happens When You Get Close To The Ground

Boldmethod

Love it or hate it, ground effect plays a big part in your landings (and takeoffs). And if your approach to landing is too fast, ground effect can really get the best of you, as you float, and float, and float (and possibly curse) down the runway.

Why Is This Happening To Me?!

We've all been there. You start your round out for landing, you're too fast, and you wait for your wheels to touch down. You wait a little longer, and a little longer, and pretty soon, you're half way down the runway.

That floating happens because of ground effect. But what it really comes down to are "wingtip vortices", and what happens to them as your wings get close to the ground.

How The Ground Limits Wingtip Vortices

Ground effect basically comes down to how big your wingtip vortices are, and how much downwash they're creating. Take a look at the Cirrus SR-22 examples below. Notice the difference in wingtip vortex size at altitude, vs. near the ground?

When your wing is close the ground, wingtip vortices can't get as big, because as they spin around your wingtip, they impact the ground and dissipate. The result? A reduction in something called downwash.

Less Downwash, Less Drag

As the air (and vortices) roll off the back of your wing, they angle down, which is known as downwash. Check out the difference in downwash at altitude, vs. near the ground:

Downwash points the relative wind downward, so the more downwash you have, the more your relative wind points downward. That's important for one very good reason: lift is always perpendicular to the relative wind. Scroll up and look at the diagrams again. You can see that when you have less downwash, your lift vector is more vertical, opposing gravity. And when you have more downwash, your lift vector points back more, causing induced drag. On top of that, it takes energy for your wings to create downwash and vortices, and that energy creates drag.

As you get close to the ground, your downwash is reduced and your vortices are reduced, which means your induced drag is reduced as well. You can really bullet three major items to identify what's happening in ground effect:

  • You have more vertical lift, which opposes weight
  • You have less rearward lift, which reduces drag
  • You have smaller vortices and less downwash, which reduces drag

How Close To The Ground Do You Need To Be For Ground Effect?

If you've flown a low wing and high wing airplane, you know that low wing planes experience a lot more ground effect during landing.

Check out the chart below. You can see that ground effect doesn't come into play until you're within 1 wingspan of the ground. But as you get closer, your induced drag reduces significantly, amping up ground effect.

Here are a couple real-world examples for you. Let's first look at a Cessna 172, which has a 36 foot wingspan. When the 172 is on the ground, its wing is about 7 feet off the ground, or 20% of the span length. Scroll up to the diagram above, and you can see that just before you touch down in a 172, your induced drag is reduced to 60% of your normal induced drag.

Now let's look at a low-wing aircraft (and one of my favorites), the Piper Warrior. The Warrior has a 35 foot wingspan, and when it's on the ground, its wing is about 3.5 feet off the ground, which is about 10% of the span length. So just before you touch down in a Warrior, your induced drag reduced to only 40% of your normal induced drag. That's significant, and it's also why you float so much as you land in a low wing airplane.

Ground Effect: The Best Friend Of Some Aircraft

While ground effect might cause you headaches when you land, it's the exact opposite for other planes. Some aircraft, like the Russian Ekranoplan, were designed to only fly in ground effect, and never get higher than a few feet from the Earth's surface, allowing them to carry a lot more payload than what would normally be possible. Check it out:

Putting It All Together

When you're in ground effect, you have smaller wingtip vortices, less downwash, and more vertical lift, all of which dramatically reduce induced drag. And it all happens within one wingspan or less of the ground. So the next time you find yourself floating down the runway, instead of cursing, go-around, and try another landing at a little slower speed.

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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