We consider the mixing dynamics of an air–liquid system driven by the rotation of a pitched blade turbine (PBT) inside an open, cylindrical tank. To examine the flow and interfacial dynamics, we use a highly parallelised implementation of a hybrid front-tracking/level-set method that employs a domain-decomposition parallelisation strategy. Our numerical technique is designed to capture faithfully complex interfacial deformation, and changes of topology, including interface rupture and dispersed phase coalescence. As shown via transient, a three-dimensional (3-D) LES (large eddy simulation) using a Smagorinsky–Lilly turbulence model, the impeller induces the formation of primary vortices that arise in many idealised rotating flows as well as several secondary vortical structures resembling Kelvin–Helmholtz, vortex breakdown, blade tip vortices and end-wall corner vortices. As the rotation rate increases, a transition to ‘aeration’ is observed when the interface reaches the rotating blades leading to the entrainment of air bubbles into the viscous fluid and the creation of a bubbly, rotating, free surface flow. The mechanisms underlying the aeration transition are probed as are the routes leading to it, which are shown to exhibit a strong dependence on flow history.