DANGEROUS CURVES: Aircraft wake vortices can throw treacherous air turbulence into the paths of succeeding planes. In this NASA/FAA test, colored smoke makes the swirling airflow visible. Image: NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER
The skies over New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport were clear and relatively calm when American Airlines Flight 587 took off on November 12, 2001. Minutes later the Airbus A300-600 airliner broke up in midflight and dove into the ground--felled perhaps in part by turbulent vortices of air produced by the wings of a Japan Airlines jumbo jet that had just preceded it down the runway.
Engineers are working on ways to detect hazardous wake vortices so pilots can avoid them or to design aircraft that leave safer skies behind them. If implemented, these new technologies could boost the number of planes that airports could handle, thus cutting delays and enabling increased commercial air traffic in coming years.
This article was originally published with the title Quieting Killer Wakes.