Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 April 2006
In this paper, the results of experiments on unsteady disturbances in the boundary-layer flow over a disk rotating in otherwise still air are presented. The flow was perturbed impulsively at a point corresponding to a Reynolds number R below the value at which transition from laminar to turbulent flow is observed. Among the frequencies excited are convectively unstable modes, which form a three-dimensional wave packet that initially convects away from the source. The wave packet consists of two families of travelling convectively unstable waves that propagate together as one packet. These two families are predicted by linear-stability theory: branch-2 modes dominate close to the source but, as the packet moves outwards into regions with higher Reynolds numbers, branch-1 modes grow preferentially and this behaviour was found in the experiment. However, the radial propagation of the trailing edge of the wave packet was observed to tend towards zero as it approaches the critical Reynolds number (about 510) for the onset of radial absolute instability. The wave packet remains convectively unstable in the circumferential direction up to this critical Reynolds number, but it is suggested that the accumulation of energy at a well-defined radius, due to the flow becoming radially absolutely unstable, causes the onset of laminar–turbulent transition. The onset of transition has been consistently observed by previous authors at an average value of 513, with only a small scatter around this value. Here, transition is also observed at about this average value, with and without artificial excitation of the boundary layer. This lack of sensitivity to the exact form of the disturbance environment is characteristic of an absolutely unstable flow, because absolute growth of disturbances can start from either noise or artificial sources to reach the same final state, which is determined by nonlinear effects.