NASA's Iconic Red Vortex Photo: 'The Rest of the Story'

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by Bruce J. Holmes

Since the early 1980s, I have had questions about an iconic picture depicting a dramatic, crimson wake vortex. This picture, with which my former NASA colleagues and I have a deep connection, provokes a telling of "the rest of the story."

The picture was taken during a NASA research program titled "Aerial Applications Research." The red smoke screen through which the airplane flew was produced by igniting smoke bombs inside a length of hardware store gutter pipes (cleverly conceived by one of the researchers on the project). It took weeks of trial and error involving different colors of smoke and waiting for the perfect sky and wind to get the photographic conditions just right. I was standing to the right of the flight path of the Ayers Thrush Commander aircraft when the automated camera system snapped many images per second and the airplane roared by.

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The heritage of the picture starts under Jimmy Carter's Administration -- not a fact that would leap off the page for most of us. Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, brought to Washington D.C. a person who spent some time at NASA Headquarters, advocating for research that could help farmers with a vexing problem involving aerial applications (or crop dusting in the vernacular). The problem was that the flow behind the aircraft wing disrupts the desired even spread of seeds or chemicals and can carry spray to places that cause trouble (streams, for example).

The physics of producing lift with a wing creates an aircraft wake which has a large vortex (tornado) generated at each wingtip. The strength of this vortex increases as aircraft weight increases. The flow from a wingtip of a crop duster picks up the seeds or chemicals and sends them far from the area directly below the aircraft. The strong spinning flow in the vortex can also cause a problem for other aircraft under some conditions. NASA and the FAA had done extensive research beginning in the 1970s and continuing today to understand and predict flow behind transport aircraft to determine safe separation distances (spacing of aircraft). We believed that this research could help the "Aerial Applications Research" program, perhaps, if the physics of the flow behind crop dusters could be understood, predicted, and tamed.

Because we see computer images on TV of airplanes the size of counties flying over a map of the U.S., we come to think of the airspace as crowded. In reality, the airspace is not crowded. Instead, the runways and the arrival queue of airplanes lined up to land are crowded. The airplanes are spaced in the queue that keeps each safely following an airplane away from the spinning wake vortex of the previous airplane.

Before this picture was taken, the NASA researchers involved pulled together all of the known theory and experimental information about the vortex, with the idea of developing a computer program to predict this flow pattern. (This was in the very early days of computing -- think magnetic tape.) Along the way we met with a collection of interesting folks including the holder of a patent for "Distributor Wing Aerial Applications Aircraft." Here is the original patent.

The idea in this patent was to blow air and seed or fertilizer through channels inside the wing and use the vortex to spread the materials on a wider swath. This intriguing concept reached a limited level of fruition in Russia in the form of the Polish-built PZL (Milek) M-15, turbofan-powered agricultural aircraft.

Our research led to the work with a startup computational methods company in Princeton, NJ, Continuum Dynamics, Inc., to develop a comprehensive CFD code for predicting where spray and seeds would fly behind the wing of a crop duster. That computer work led to the tests at NASA's Wallops Flight Research Center, where we took this picture, to prove to ourselves that the computer method worked. It did.

In the photo, underneath the flight path, plastic pipes are visible on which we rolled out sticky tape to collect glass beads of varying sizes that were released from movable canisters located under the wing. The results of the testing proved that the computer was an excellent tool for the task of designing spray systems on aircraft.

That task resulted in the most famous vortex flow picture of all time (perhaps a little over-stated), shown here. This photo shows up virtually anywhere the subject of wake turbulence, wake vortex, and aircraft wakes is discussed. We never imagined the value of the photo back then.

And now, as my fellow Minnesotan, Paul Harvey, used to say, you know "the rest of the story."

Bruce J. Holmes, retired from his NASA career in public sector entrepreneurialism, is now practicing the art in the private sector as CEO, NextGen AeroSciences.

Image: NASA Langley Research Center.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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