How Contrails Form

By Aleks Udris (@udri) via Boldmethod

contrails 01_250pxContrails are real – they’re not a government conspiracy to spray chemicals (big surprise, huh?!?). But, did you know there are two types of contrails? Aircraft can generate both aerodynamic contrails and exhaust contrails. Check them out.

Contrails are “condensation trails,” and they have nothing to do with chemicals. They occur when water condenses into a cloud – in either liquid or ice-crystal form. Contrails come in two varieties: aerodynamic and exhaust contrails.

Aerodynamic Contrails

Aerodynamic contrails occur when moist air cools due to lowered pressure, condensing humidity in the air and forming a contrail cloud.

What causes an aerodynamic contrail? It can come from any surface which lowers the air pressure – but it’s commonly caused by your propellor or wings. When an airfoil decreases air pressure, it also decreases the air’s temperature. If the humidity’s high, the drop in temperature and pressure can lower the air’s temperature past the dew point and form a contrail cloud.

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The more your wings decrease pressure, the greater the temperature drop. So, an aircraft with high wing loading can generate large aerodynamic contrails. An F-15 pulling G’s and a 737 at a high angle of attack are great examples of this effect.

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Aerodynamic contrails don’t last long. As soon as the aerodynamically cooled air comes back up to ambient temperature, the contrails dissipate. That’s why aerodynamic contrails are so short lived.

Exhaust Contrails

Exhaust contrails are more common, and they’re usually seen behind aircraft cruising in the flight levels. They form when hot, moist air exiting an engine mixes with extremely cold air – condensing the exhaust’s moisture.

How cold does the air need to be?

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