Newton’s third law says that forces come in equal and opposite pairs. This means that when air exerts lift on an airplane, the airplane also exerts a downward force on the air. This is clear in the image above, which shows a an A380 prototype launched through a wall of smoke. When the model passes, air is pushed downward. The finite size of the wings also generates dramatic wingtip vortices. The high pressure air on the underside of the wings tries to slip around the wingtip to the upper surface, where the local pressure is low. This generates the spiraling vortices, which can be a significant hazard to other nearby aircraft. They are also detrimental to the airplane’s lift because they reduce the downwash of air. Most commercial aircraft today mitigate these effects using winglets which weaken the vortices’ effects. (Image credit: Nat. Geo./BBC2)


The ends of an airplane’s wings generate vortices that stretch back in the wake of the plane. Most of the time these vortices are invisible, even if their effects on lift are distinctive. Here an A-340 coming in for a foggy landing demonstrates the size and strength of these vortices. Notice how the fog gets swept up and away by the vortices. Pilots will sometimes use this effect to their advantage in clearing a runway of fog by making repeated low-passes to clear the fog before landing. (Video credit: A. Ruesch; submitted by Jens F.)