AbstractThe airflow dynamics above the air–sea interface are believed to have a significant impact on the fluxes of momentum and scalars across the ocean surface. We present an experimental study of the turbulent structure of the airflow above wind generated surface waves. Measurements, taken at a fetch of 22.7 m in University of Delaware’s large wind-wave–current facility, are reported for wind wave experiments with 10-m extrapolated wind speeds spanning from 2.19 m s−1 to 16.63 m s−1. In order to complete this study, we developed a complex imaging system, combining particle image velocimetry with laser induced fluorescence techniques. High resolution two-dimensional (18.7 cm x 9.7 cm) velocity fields were measured as close as 100 m above the air–water interface (on average). In addition, we acquired high spatial and temporal resolution wave field data simultaneously with the airflow measurements. Using this imaging system, we were able to perform phase averaging and separate the turbulent, mean and wave-induced velocity fields. We observe direct evidence of airflow separation events past the crests of wind waves, starting at low to moderate wind speeds ( m s−1). In general, the turbulent boundary layer in the air is characterized by numerous velocity sweeps and ejections, accompanied by intense downwind-tilted spanwise vorticity (shear) layers stemming from the surface. We were able to directly observe these turbulent events, and estimate their statistical significance using quadrant analysis. These events become phase-locked in the presence of waves, and, when m s−1, they are accompanied by intermittent airflow separation events past wave crests. The production of TKE also shows wave phase locked features indicating that further analysis of the wave-coherent contributions to the TKE balance is needed.