Ever since the beginning of manned flight, pilots realized that just before touchdown it would suddenly feel like the aircraft did not want to go lower, and it would just want to go on and on. This is due to the air that is trapped between the wing and the landing surface, as if there were an air cushion. This phenomenon is called ground effect.

When an aircraft in flight comes within several feet of the surface, ground or water, a change occurs in the three-dimensional flow pattern around the aircraft because the vertical component of the airflow around the wing is restricted by the surface. This alters the wing’s upwash, downwash, and wingtip vortices. [Figure 1]
aerodynamics of flight
Figure 1. Ground effect changes airflow
Ground effect, then, is due to the interference of the ground (or water) surface with the airflow patterns about the aircraft in flight. While the aerodynamic characteristics of the tail surfaces and the fuselage are altered by ground effect, the principal effects due to proximity of the ground are the changes in the aerodynamic characteristics of the wing. As the wing encounters ground effect and is maintained at a constant AOA, there is consequent reduction in the upwash, downwash, and wingtip vortices.

Induced drag is a result of the airfoil’s work of sustaining the aircraft, and a wing or rotor lifts the aircraft simply by accelerating a mass of air downward. It is true that reduced pressure on top of an airfoil is essential to lift, but that is only one of the things contributing to the overall effect of pushing an air mass downward. The more downwash there is, the harder the wing pushes the mass of air down. At high angles of attack, the amount of induced drag is high; since this corresponds to lower airspeeds in actual flight, it can be said that induced drag predominates at low speed. However, the reduction of the wingtip vortices due to ground effect alters the spanwise lift distribution and reduces the induced AOA and induced drag. Therefore, the wing will require a lower AOA in ground effect to produce the same CL. If a constant AOA is maintained, an increase in CL results. [Figure 2]
aerodynamics of flight
Figure 2. Ground effect changes drag and lift
Ground effect also alters the thrust required versus velocity. Since induced drag predominates at low speeds, the reduction of induced drag due to ground effect will cause a significant reduction of thrust required (parasite plus induced drag) at low speeds. Due to the change in upwash, downwash, and wingtip vortices, there may be a change in position (installation) error of the airspeed system associated with ground effect. In the majority of cases, ground effect causes an increase in the local pressure at the static source and produces a lower indication of airspeed and altitude. Thus, an aircraft may be airborne at an indicated airspeed less than that normally required.
In order for ground effect to be of significant magnitude, the wing must be quite close to the ground. One of the direct results of ground effect is the variation of induced drag with wing height above the ground at a constant CL. When the wing is at a height equal to its span, the reduction in induced drag is only 1.4 percent. However, when the wing is at a height equal to one-fourth its span, the reduction in induced drag is 23.5 percent and, when the wing is at a height equal to one-tenth its span, the reduction in induced drag is 47.6 percent. Thus, a large reduction in induced drag takes place only when the wing is very close to the ground. Because of this variation, ground effect is most usually recognized during the liftoff for takeoff or just prior to touchdown when landing.
During the takeoff phase of flight, ground effect produces some important relationships. An aircraft leaving ground effect after takeoff encounters just the reverse of an aircraft entering ground effect during landing. The aircraft leaving ground effect will:
  • Require an increase in AOA to maintain the same CL
  • Experience an increase in induced drag and thrust required
  • Experience a decrease in stability and a nose-up change in moment
  • Experience a reduction in static source pressure and increase in indicated airspeed
Ground effect must be considered during takeoffs and landings. For example, if a pilot fails to understand the relationship between the aircraft and ground effect during takeoff, a hazardous situation is possible because the recommended takeoff speed may not be achieved. Due to the reduced drag in ground effect, the aircraft may seem capable of takeoff well below the recommended speed. As the aircraft rises out of ground effect with a deficiency of speed, the greater induced drag may result in marginal initial climb performance. In extreme conditions, such as high gross weight, high density altitude, and high temperature, a deficiency of airspeed during takeoff may permit the aircraft to become airborne but be incapable of sustaining flight out of ground effect. In this case, the aircraft may become airborne initially with a deficiency of speed and then settle back to the runway.

A pilot should not attempt to force an aircraft to become airborne with a deficiency of speed. The manufacturer’s recommended takeoff speed is necessary to provide adequate initial climb performance. It is also important that a definite climb be established before a pilot retracts the landing gear or flaps. Never retract the landing gear or flaps prior to establishing a positive rate of climb and only after achieving a safe altitude.
If, during the landing phase of flight, the aircraft is brought into ground effect with a constant AOA, the aircraft experiences an increase in CL and a reduction in the thrust required, and a “floating” effect may occur. Because of the reduced drag and lack of power-off deceleration in ground effect, any excess speed at the point of flare may incur a considerable “float” distance. As the aircraft nears the point of touchdown, ground effect is most realized at altitudes less than the wingspan. During the final phases of the approach as the aircraft nears the ground, a reduction of power is necessary to offset the increase in lift caused from ground effect otherwise the aircraft will have a tendency to climb above the desired glidepath (GP).