One of the most dramatic and famous engineering failures of the twentieth century is also one of the most complicated: the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. This early suspension bridge earned the name “Galloping Gurtie” from construction workers while it was still being built because its flexibility made it prone to moving up and down under even relatively light winds. That vertical motion was due to vortex-induced vibration. As the wind blew, it shed vortices off the downstream side of the bridge. These vortices alternated, coming off the top and then bottom of the bridge deck. The resulting forces made the bridge shift up and down.

That wasn’t the bridge’s ultimate downfall, though. Shortly before it collapsed, the bridge stopped flexing up and down and instead twisted back and forth. This was a clear sign that the bridge had moved into aeroelastic flutter. In this situation, you get a feedback loop between the bridge’s aerodynamics and its structural dynamics. When the wind twists the bridge deck to a positive angle of attack, it will try to continue forcing the bridge to twist that direction. The internal forces of the bridge will try to twist it back, but when that happens, it can overshoot and end up at a negative angle of attack. At that point, the wind tries to push it further that direction and internal forces twist it back, overshooting the other way. This back-and-forth can create a dangerous feedback loop where the twisting of the bridge keeps getting worse and worse. In fact, that’s exactly what happened – right up until the bridge collapsed rather than twisting any more. (Video and image credit: Practical Engineering)

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