In this captivating monochromatic image photographed by Steve Morris, we are offered a striking visual fusion of science and art. It portrays an airplane, a British Airways Boeing 777 descending to land, piercing through a thin layer of stratus cloud at 2000ft altitude as the photographer noted. However, what truly sets this image apart is the ephemeral formation of a heart shape in the clouds, brought to life by the airplane’s wingtip vortices.
Wingtip vortices are formed as a natural consequence of the lift generated by an aircraft’s wings. When an aircraft is in flight, the air pressure above the wing is lower than the air pressure below the wing, which creates lift. Wingtip vortices occur because the air flowing over the wing’s upper surface tends to spill over the wingtips to the lower-pressure region below the wing. This spillover of air causes the following:
- Pressure Difference: As air moves from the high-pressure area below the wing to the low-pressure area above it, it experiences a pressure difference. This pressure difference results in a swirling motion of air at the wingtips.
- Conservation of Angular Momentum: The air moving over the wingtips tends to conserve its angular momentum. As the wings create lift and induce a rotation in the air particles, these rotating air parcels become the vortex.
- Formation of Vortices: The swirling motion of air at the wingtips forms two counter-rotating vortices, one at each wingtip. These vortices are often referred to as “wingtip vortices” or “tip vortices.”
They are most pronounced when an aircraft is operating at high angles of attack, low airspeeds, and high lift coefficients, such as during takeoff and landing, which is the case here. The moment captured in this image is among the rarer instance where the vortices from both wings appear close enough to be perceived as joint and forming a singular shape.
The monochromatic palette of the image imparts a sense of timeless elegance to the scene. The aircraft’s silhouette, stark against the soft, billowing clouds, adds an element of minimalistic beauty. The heart motif transcends mere meteorological phenomenon, evoking awe and wonder. The image invites viewers to contemplate the harmony between human engineering and the natural world. It captures a fleeting moment of transition—of an airplane leaving its mark on the sky, it becomes a metaphor for the profound connections between technology and nature. It reminds us that even in the most scientific phenomena, there lies a deep, poetic beauty waiting to be unveiled, often hidden but always present, waiting for those who take the time to look.
Photo Credit: Steve Morris
Date: July 10, 2006
Camera: Canon 20D
Fact Sheets – Wake Vortex Research. (n.d.). Retrieved from Nasa Dryden Flight Research Center: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/about/Organizations/Technology/Facts/TF-2004-14-DFRC.html
Michea Giuni, R. B. (2013). Vortex formation on squared and rounded tip. Elsevier, 191-199.: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1270963813000631
Waters, M. (2017, July 24). Watch a Swirly, Colorful NASA Vortex Test From the ’70s. Retrieved from Atlas Obscura: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/wingtip-vortices-nasa
William J. Devenport, M. C. (2006). The structure and development of a wing-tip vortex. Cambridge Core: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-fluid-mechanics/article/abs/structure-and-development-of-a-wingtip-vortex/F7053247F0C82F7DA5DC27A266B978D8