Air Force lab tests out “aircraft surfing” technique to save fuel

Air Force says vortex surfing is a concept migrating birds, NASCAR drivers and Tour de France bicyclists employ

C-17s flying in formation
It's not a totally new concept, but the Air Force is testing the idea of flying gas-guzzling cargo aircraft inline allowing the trailing aircraft to utilize the cyclonic energy coming off the lead plane- a concept known as vortex surfing - over long distances to save large amounts of  fuel.

According to an Air force release, a series of recent test flights involving two aircraft at a time, let  the trailing aircraft surf the vortex of the lead aircraft, positioning itself in the updraft to get additional lift without burning extra fuel. It's a concept migrating birds, NASCAR drivers and Tour de France bicyclists are quite familiar with, the Air Force noted.

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Modified C-17 cargo aircraft formation flight system software enabled precise auto-pilot and auto-throttle systems to ensure the trailing aircraft achieved and maintained proper flight position without active assistance from pilots, according to Air Force Research Lab  officials. Aircraft like the C-17 can fly in formations that are potentially easy to maintain and which do not require the planes to be exceptionally close together, the Air Force stated.

"Early indications from the tests promise a reduction of fuel consumption by up to 10% for the duration of a flight. Over long distances and with even a small fraction of Air Mobility Command's average of more than 80,000 flights a year, the fuel and cost savings could reach into the millions of dollars," the Air Force stated. 

"The concept, formally known as Surfing Aircraft Vortices for Energy, or $AVE, involves two or more aircraft flying together for a reduced drag effect like what you see with a flock of geese," said Dr. Donald Erbschloe, the Air Mobility Command chief scientist.  Next up: The Air Force Research Laboratory will analyze the data from for possible applications to other aircraft on a variety of missions.

In 2003, NASA said one of its F/A-18 test aircraft had a 29% fuel savings by flying in the wingtip vortex of a DC-8. The DC-8/F-18 flight was an exploratory investigation of large aircraft vortex-induced performance benefits on a fighter-type aircraft. The aircraft flew at 25,000 feet with a separation of about 200 feet nose-to-tail. The F/A-18 slowly moved in laterally to explore the vortex effects, NASA said at the time.

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