Section 4. Wake Turbulence

  1. General
    1. Every aircraft generates wake turbulence while in flight. Wake turbulence is a function of an aircraft producing lift, resulting in the formation of two counter-rotating vortices trailing behind the aircraft.
    2. Wake turbulence from the generating aircraft can affect encountering aircraft due to the strength, duration, and direction of the vortices. Wake turbulence can impose rolling moments exceeding the roll-control authority of encountering aircraft, causing possible injury to occupants and damage to aircraft. Pilots should always be aware of the possibility of a wake turbulence encounter when flying through the wake of another aircraft, and adjust the flight path accordingly.
  2. Vortex Generation
    1. The creation of a pressure differential over the wing surface generates lift. The lowest pressure occurs over the upper wing surface and the highest pressure under the wing. This pressure differential triggers the roll up of the airflow at the rear of the wing resulting in swirling air masses trailing downstream of the wing tips. After the roll up is completed, the wake consists of two counter-rotating cylindrical vortices. (See FIG 7-4-1.) The wake vortex is formed with most of the energy concentrated within a few feet of the vortex core.

      FIG 7-4-1
      Wake Vortex Generation

      A graphic depicting wake vortex generation.
    2. More aircraft are being manufactured or retrofitted with winglets. There are several types of winglets, but their primary function is to increase fuel efficiency by improving the lift-to-drag ratio. Studies have shown that winglets have a negligible effect on wake turbulence generation, particularly with the slower speeds involved during departures and arrivals.
  3. Vortex Strength
    1. Weight, speed, wingspan, and shape of the generating aircraft's wing all govern the strength of the vortex. The vortex characteristics of any given aircraft can also be changed by extension of flaps or other wing configuring devices. However, the vortex strength from an aircraft increases proportionately to an increase in operating weight or a decrease in aircraft speed. Since the turbulence from a “dirty” aircraft configuration hastens wake decay, the greatest vortex strength occurs when the generating aircraft is HEAVY, CLEAN, and SLOW.
    2. Induced Roll
      1. In rare instances, a wake encounter could cause catastrophic inflight structural damage to an aircraft. However, the usual hazard is associated with induced rolling moments that can exceed the roll-control authority of the encountering aircraft. During inflight testing, aircraft intentionally flew directly up trailing vortex cores of larger aircraft. These tests demonstrated that the ability of aircraft to counteract the roll imposed by wake vortex depends primarily on the wingspan and counter-control responsiveness of the encountering aircraft. These tests also demonstrated the difficulty of an aircraft to remain within a wake vortex. The natural tendency is for the circulation to eject aircraft from the vortex.
      2. Counter control is usually effective and induced roll minimal in cases where the wingspan and ailerons of the encountering aircraft extend beyond the rotational flow field of the vortex. It is more difficult for aircraft with short wingspan (relative to the generating aircraft) to counter the imposed roll induced by vortex flow. Pilots of short span aircraft, even of the high performance type, must be especially alert to vortex encounters. (See FIG 7-4-2.)

        FIG 7-4-2
        Wake Encounter Counter Control

        A graphic depicting the counter control to be used during a wake encounter.
  4. Vortex Behavior
    1. Trailing vortices have certain behavioral characteristics which can help a pilot visualize the wake location and thereby take avoidance precautions.
      1. An aircraft generates vortices from the moment it rotates on takeoff to touchdown, since trailing vortices are a by-product of wing lift. Prior to takeoff or touchdown pilots should note the rotation or touchdown point of the preceding aircraft. (See FIG 7-4-3.)
      2. The vortex circulation is outward, upward and around the wing tips when viewed from either ahead or behind the aircraft. Tests with larger aircraft have shown that the vortices remain spaced a bit less than a wingspan apart, drifting with the wind, at altitudes greater than a wingspan from the ground. In view of this, if persistent vortex turbulence is encountered, a slight change of altitude (upward) and lateral position (upwind) should provide a flight path clear of the turbulence.
      3. Flight tests have shown that the vortices from larger aircraft sink at a rate of several hundred feet per minute, slowing their descent and diminishing in strength with time and distance behind the generating aircraft. Pilots should fly at or above the preceding aircraft's flight path, altering course as necessary to avoid the area directly behind and below the generating aircraft. (See FIG 7-4-4.) Pilots, in all phases of flight, must remain vigilant of possible wake effects created by other aircraft. Studies have shown that atmospheric turbulence hastens wake breakup, while other atmospheric conditions can transport wake horizontally and vertically.
      4. When the vortices of larger aircraft sink close to the ground (within 100 to 200 feet), they tend to move laterally over the ground at a speed of 2 or 3 knots. (See .FIG 7-4-5)

        FIG 7-4-3
        Wake Ends/Wake Begins

        A graphic depicting the wake ending and beginning from touchdown to takeoff.

        FIG 7-4-4
        Vortex Flow Field

        A graphic depicting the vortex flow field.

        FIG 7-4-5
        Vortex Movement Near Ground - No Wind

        A graphic depicting the vortex movement near the ground with no wind.

        FIG 7-4-6
        Vortex Movement Near Ground - with Cross Winds

        A graphic depicting the vortex movement near the ground with cross winds.
      5. Pilots should be alert at all times for possible wake vortex encounters when conducting approach and landing operations. The pilot is ultimately responsible for maintaining an appropriate interval, and should consider all available information in positioning the aircraft in the terminal area, to avoid the wake turbulence created by a preceding aircraft. Test data shows that vortices can rise with the air mass in which they are embedded. The effects of wind shear can cause vortex flow field “tilting.” In addition, ambient thermal lifting and orographic effects (rising terrain or tree lines) can cause a vortex flow field to rise and possibly bounce.
    2. A crosswind will decrease the lateral movement of the upwind vortex and increase the movement of the downwind vortex. Thus, a light wind with a cross-runway component of 1 to 5 knots could result in the upwind vortex remaining in the touchdown zone for a period of time and hasten the drift of the downwind vortex toward another runway. (See FIG 7-4-6.) Similarly, a tailwind condition can move the vortices of the preceding aircraft forward into the touchdown zone. THE LIGHT QUARTERING TAILWIND REQUIRES MAXIMUM CAUTION. Pilots should be alert to large aircraft upwind from their approach and takeoff flight paths. (See FIG 7-4-7.)

      FIG 7-4-7
      Vortex Movement in Ground Effect - Tailwind

      A graphic depicting the vortex movement in ground effect with a tailwind.
  5. Operations Problem Areas
    1. A wake turbulence encounter can range from negligible to catastrophic. The impact of the encounter depends on the weight, wingspan, size of the generating aircraft, distance from the generating aircraft, and point of vortex encounter. The probability of induced roll increases when the encountering aircraft's heading is generally aligned with the flight path of the generating aircraft.


      A common scenario for a wake encounter is in terminal airspace after accepting clearance for a visual approach behind landing traffic. Pilots must be cognizant of their position relative to the traffic and use all means of vertical guidance to ensure they do not fly below the flight path of the wake generating aircraft.

    3. Pilots should be particularly alert in calm wind conditions and situations where the vortices could:
      1. Remain in the touchdown area.
      2. Drift from aircraft operating on a nearby runway.
      3. Sink into the takeoff or landing path from a crossing runway.
      4. Sink into the traffic pattern from other airport operations.
      5. Sink into the flight path of VFR aircraft operating on the hemispheric altitude 500 feet below.
    4. Pilots should attempt to visualize the vortex trail of aircraft whose projected flight path they may encounter. When possible, pilots of larger aircraft should adjust their flight paths to minimize vortex exposure to other aircraft.
  6. Vortex Avoidance Procedures
    1. Under certain conditions, airport traffic controllers apply procedures for separating IFR aircraft. If a pilot accepts a clearance to visually follow a preceding aircraft, the pilot accepts responsibility for separation and wake turbulence avoidance. The controllers will also provide to VFR aircraft, with whom they are in communication and which in the tower's opinion may be adversely affected by wake turbulence from a larger aircraft, the position, altitude and direction of flight of larger aircraft followed by the phrase “CAUTION - WAKE TURBULENCE.” After issuing the caution for wake turbulence, the airport traffic controllers generally do not provide additional information to the following aircraft unless the airport traffic controllers know the following aircraft is overtaking the preceding aircraft. WHETHER OR NOT A WARNING OR INFORMATION HAS BEEN GIVEN, HOWEVER, THE PILOT IS EXPECTED TO ADJUST AIRCRAFT OPERATIONS AND FLIGHT PATH AS NECESSARY TO PRECLUDE SERIOUS WAKE ENCOUNTERS. When any doubt exists about maintaining safe separation distances between aircraft during approaches, pilots should ask the control tower for updates on separation distance and aircraft groundspeed.
    2. The following vortex avoidance procedures are recommended for the various situations:
      1. Landing behind a larger aircraft- same runway. Stay at or above the larger aircraft's final approach flight path-note its touchdown point-land beyond it.
      2. Landing behind a larger aircraft- when parallel runway is closer than 2,500 feet. Consider possible drift to your runway. Stay at or above the larger aircraft's final approach flight path- note its touchdown point.
      3. Landing behind a larger aircraft- crossing runway. Cross above the larger aircraft's flight path.
      4. Landing behind a departing larger aircraft- same runway. Note the larger aircraft's rotation point- land well prior to rotation point.
      5. Landing behind a departing larger aircraft- crossing runway. Note the larger aircraft's rotation point- if past the intersection- continue the approach- land prior to the intersection. If larger aircraft rotates prior to the intersection, avoid flight below the larger aircraft's flight path. Abandon the approach unless a landing is ensured well before reaching the intersection.
      6. Departing behind a larger aircraft. Note the larger aircraft's rotation point and rotate prior to the larger aircraft's rotation point. Continue climbing above the larger aircraft's climb path until turning clear of the larger aircraft's wake. Avoid subsequent headings which will cross below and behind a larger aircraft. Be alert for any critical takeoff situation which could lead to a vortex encounter.
      7. Intersection takeoffs- same runway. Be alert to adjacent larger aircraft operations, particularly upwind of your runway. If intersection takeoff clearance is received, avoid subsequent heading which will cross below a larger aircraft's path.
      8. Departing or landing after a larger aircraft executing a low approach, missed approach, or touch-and-go landing. Because vortices settle and move laterally near the ground, the vortex hazard may exist along the runway and in your flight path after a larger aircraft has executed a low approach, missed approach, or a touch-and-go landing, particular in light quartering wind conditions. You should ensure that an interval of at least 2 minutes has elapsed before your takeoff or landing.
      9. En route VFR (thousand-foot altitude plus 500 feet). Avoid flight below and behind a large aircraft's path. If a larger aircraft is observed above on the same track (meeting or overtaking) adjust your position laterally, preferably upwind.
  7. Helicopters

    In a slow hover taxi or stationary hover near the surface, helicopter main rotor(s) generate downwash producing high velocity outwash vortices to a distance approximately three times the diameter of the rotor. When rotor downwash hits the surface, the resulting outwash vortices have behavioral characteristics similar to wing tip vortices produced by fixed wing aircraft. However, the vortex circulation is outward, upward, around, and away from the main rotor(s) in all directions. Pilots of small aircraft should avoid operating within three rotor diameters of any helicopter in a slow hover taxi or stationary hover. In forward flight, departing or landing helicopters produce a pair of strong, high-speed trailing vortices similar to wing tip vortices of larger fixed wing aircraft. Pilots of small aircraft should use caution when operating behind or crossing behind landing and departing helicopters.

  8. Pilot Responsibility
    1. Research and testing have been conducted, in addition to ongoing wake initiatives, in an attempt to mitigate the effects of wake turbulence. Pilots must exercise vigilance in situations where they are responsible for avoiding wake turbulence.
    2. Pilots are reminded that in operations conducted behind all aircraft, acceptance of instructions from ATC in the following situations is an acknowledgment that the pilot will ensure safe takeoff and landing intervals and accepts the responsibility for providing wake turbulence separation.
      1. Traffic information.
      2. Instructions to follow an aircraft; and
      3. The acceptance of a visual approach clearance.
    3. For operations conducted behind super or heavy aircraft, ATC will specify the word “super” or “heavy” as appropriate, when this information is known. Pilots of super or heavy aircraft should always use the word “super” or “heavy” in radio communications.
    4. Super, heavy, and large jet aircraft operators should use the following procedures during an approach to landing. These procedures establish a dependable baseline from which pilots of in-trail, lighter aircraft may reasonably expect to make effective flight path adjustments to avoid serious wake vortex turbulence.
      1. Pilots of aircraft that produce strong wake vortices should make every attempt to fly on the established glidepath, not above it; or, if glidepath guidance is not available, to fly as closely as possible to a “3-1” glidepath, not above it.


        Fly 3,000 feet at 10 miles from touchdown, 1,500 feet at 5 miles, 1,200 feet at 4 miles, and so on to touchdown.

      2. Pilots of aircraft that produce strong wake vortices should fly as closely as possible to the approach course centerline or to the extended centerline of the runway of intended landing as appropriate to conditions.
    5. Pilots operating lighter aircraft on visual approaches in-trail to aircraft producing strong wake vortices should use the following procedures to assist in avoiding wake turbulence. These procedures apply only to those aircraft that are on visual approaches.
      1. Pilots of lighter aircraft should fly on or above the glidepath. Glidepath reference may be furnished by an ILS, by a visual approach slope system, by other ground-based approach slope guidance systems, or by other means. In the absence of visible glidepath guidance, pilots may very nearly duplicate a 3-degree glideslope by adhering to the “3 to 1” glidepath principle.


        Fly 3,000 feet at 10 miles from touchdown, 1,500 feet at 5 miles, 1,200 feet at 4 miles, and so on to touchdown.

      2. If the pilot of the lighter following aircraft has visual contact with the preceding heavier aircraft and also with the runway, the pilot may further adjust for possible wake vortex turbulence by the following practices:
        1. Pick a point of landing no less than 1,000 feet from the arrival end of the runway.
        2. Establish a line-of-sight to that landing point that is above and in front of the heavier preceding aircraft.
        3. When possible, note the point of landing of the heavier preceding aircraft and adjust point of intended landing as necessary.


          A puff of smoke may appear at the 1,000-foot markings of the runway, showing that touchdown was that point; therefore, adjust point of intended landing to the 1,500-foot markings.

        4. Maintain the line-of-sight to the point of intended landing above and ahead of the heavier preceding aircraft; maintain it to touchdown.
        5. Land beyond the point of landing of the preceding heavier aircraft. Ensure you have adequate runway remaining, if conducting a touch-and-go landing, or adequate stopping distance available for a full stop landing.
    6. During visual approaches pilots may ask ATC for updates on separation and groundspeed with respect to heavier preceding aircraft, especially when there is any question of safe separation from wake turbulence.
    7. Pilots should notify ATC when a wake event is encountered. Be as descriptive as possible (i.e., bank angle, altitude deviations, intensity and duration of event, etc.) when reporting the event. ATC will record the event through their reporting system. You are also encouraged to use the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) to report wake events.
  9. Air Traffic Wake Turbulence Separations
    1. Because of the possible effects of wake turbulence, controllers are required to apply no less than minimum required separation to all aircraft operating behind a Super or Heavy, and to Small aircraft operating behind a B757, when aircraft are IFR; VFR and receiving Class B, Class C, or TRSA airspace services; or VFR and being radar sequenced.
      1. Separation is applied to aircraft operating directly behind a super or heavy at the same altitude or less than 1,000 feet below, and to small aircraft operating directly behind a B757 at the same altitude or less than 500 feet below:
        1. Heavy behind super - 6 miles.
        2. Large behind super - 7 miles.
        3. Small behind super - 8 miles.
        4. Heavy behind heavy -4 miles.
        5. Small/large behind heavy - 5 miles.
        6. Small behind B757 - 4 miles.
      2. Also, separation, measured at the time the preceding aircraft is over the landing threshold, is provided to small aircraft:
        1. Small landing behind heavy - 6 miles.
        2. Small landing behind large, non-B757 - 4 miles.


          P/CG Term - AIRCRAFT CLASSES.

    2. Additionally, appropriate time or distance intervals are provided to departing aircraft when the departure will be from the same threshold, a parallel runway separated by less than 2,500 feet with less than 500 feet threshold stagger, or on a crossing runway and projected flight paths will cross:
      1. Three minutes or the appropriate radar separation when takeoff will be behind a super aircraft;
      2. Two minutes or the appropriate radar separation when takeoff will be behind a heavy aircraft.
      3. Two minutes or the appropriate radar separation when a small aircraft will takeoff behind a B757.


        Controllers may not reduce or waive these intervals.

    3. A 3-minute interval will be provided when a small aircraft will takeoff:
      1. From an intersection on the same runway (same or opposite direction) behind a departing large aircraft (except B757), or
      2. In the opposite direction on the same runway behind a large aircraft (except B757) takeoff or low/missed approach.


        This 3-minute interval may be waived upon specific pilot request.

    4. A 3-minute interval will be provided when a small aircraft will takeoff:
      1. From an intersection on the same runway (same or opposite direction) behind a departing B757, or
      2. In the opposite direction on the same runway behind a B757 takeoff or low/missed approach.


        This 3-minute interval may not be waived.

    5. A 4-minute interval will be provided for all aircraft taking off behind a super aircraft, and a 3-minute interval will be provided for all aircraft taking off behind a heavy aircraft when the operations are as described in subparagraphs c1 and c2 above, and are conducted on either the same runway or parallel runways separated by less than 2,500 feet. Controllers may not reduce or waive this interval.
    6. Pilots may request additional separation (i.e., 2 minutes instead of 4 or 5 miles) for wake turbulence avoidance. This request should be made as soon as practical on ground control and at least before taxiing onto the runway.


      14 CFR Section 91.3(a) states: “The pilot-in-command of an aircraft is directly responsible for and is the final authority as to the operation of that aircraft.”

    7. Controllers may anticipate separation and need not withhold a takeoff clearance for an aircraft departing behind a large, heavy, or super aircraft if there is reasonable assurance the required separation will exist when the departing aircraft starts takeoff roll.


      With the advent of new wake turbulence separation methodologies known as Wake Turbulence Recategorization, some of the requirements listed above may vary at facilities authorized to operate in accordance with Wake Turbulence Recategorization directives.


      FAA Order JO 7110.659 Wake Turbulence Recategorization.
      FAA Order JO 7110.123 Wake Turbulence Recategorization - Phase II.
      FAA Order JO 7110.126, Consolidated Wake Turbulence.

  10. Development and New Capabilities
    1. The suite of available wake turbulence tools, rules, and procedures is expanding, with the development of new methodologies. Based on extensive analysis of wake vortex behavior, new procedures and separation standards are being developed and implemented in the US and throughout the world. Wake research involves the wake generating aircraft as well as the wake toleration of the trailing aircraft.
    2. The FAA and ICAO are leading initiatives, in terminal environments, to implement next-generation wake turbulence procedures and separation standards. The FAA has undertaken an effort to recategorize the existing fleet of aircraft and modify associated wake turbulence separation minima. This initiative is termed Wake Turbulence Recategorization (RECAT), and changes the current weight-based classes (Super, Heavy, B757, Large, Small+, and Small) to a wake-based categorical system that utilizes the aircraft matrices of weight, wingspan, and approach speed. RECAT is currently in use at a limited number of airports in the National Airspace System.