Ground effect is a condition of improved performance encountered when the airplane is operating very close to the ground. Ground effect can be detected and normally occurs up to an altitude equal to one wingspan above the surface. [Figure] Ground effect is most significant when the airplane maintains a constant attitude at low airspeed at low altitude (for example, during takeoff when the airplane lifts off and accelerates to climb speed, and during the landing flare before touchdown).

Airplane flying
Takeoff in ground effect area
When the wing is under the influence of ground effect, there is a reduction in upwash, downwash, and wingtip vortices. As a result of the reduced wingtip vortices, induced drag is reduced. When the wing is at a height equal to 1/4 the span, the reduction in induced drag is about 25 percent. When the wing is at a height equal to 1/10 the span, the reduction in induced drag is about 50 percent. At high speeds where parasite drag dominates, induced drag is a small part of the total drag. Consequently, ground effect is a greater concern during takeoff and landing.At takeoff, the takeoff roll, lift-off, and the beginning of the initial climb are accomplished within the ground effect area. The ground effect causes local increases in static pressure, which cause the airspeed indicator and altimeter to indicate slightly lower values than they should and usually cause the vertical speed indicator to indicate a descent. As the airplane lifts off and climbs out of the ground effect area, the following occurs:

  • The airplane requires an increase in AOA to maintain lift coefficient.
  • The airplane experiences an increase in induced drag and thrust required.
  • The airplane experiences a pitch-up tendency and requires less elevator travel because of an increase in downwash at the horizontal tail.
  • The airplane experiences a reduction in static source pressure and a corresponding increase in indicated airspeed.

VX is the speed at which the airplane achieves the greatest gain in altitude for a given distance over the ground. It is usually slightly less than VY, which is the greatest gain in altitude per unit of time. The specific speeds to be used for a given airplane are stated in the FAA-approved AFM/POH. The pilot should be aware that, in some airplanes, a deviation of 5 knots from the recommended speed may result in a significant reduction in climb performance; therefore, the pilot should maintain precise control of the airspeed to ensure the maneuver is executed safely and successfully.Due to the reduced drag in ground effect, the airplane may seem to be able to take off below the recommended airspeed. However, as the airplane climbs out of ground effect below the recommended climb speed, initial climb performance will be much less than at VY or even VX. Under conditions of high density altitude, high temperature, and/or maximum gross weight, the airplane may be able to lift off but will be unable to climb out of ground effect. Consequently, the airplane may not be able to clear obstructions. Lift-off before attaining recommended flight airspeed incurs more drag, which requires more power to overcome. Since the initial takeoff and climb is based on maximum power, reducing drag is the only option. To reduce drag, pitch should be reduced which means losing altitude. Pilots should remember that many airplanes cannot safely takeoff at maximum gross weight at certain altitudes and temperatures, due to lack of performance. Therefore, under marginal conditions, it is important that the airplane takes off at the speed recommended for adequate initial climb performance.

Ground effect is important to normal flight operations. If the runway is long enough or if no obstacles exist, ground effect can be used to the pilot’s advantage by using the reduced drag to improve initial acceleration.

When taking off from an unsatisfactory surface, the pilot should apply as much weight to the wings as possible during the ground run and lift-off, using ground effect as an aid, prior to attaining true flying speed. The pilot should reduce AOA to attain normal airspeed before attempting to fly out of the ground effect areas.