Scientists say the way air flows around the nose is more complex than that around a jumbo jet's wing.
Knowledge about the nose could help treat runny noses
Imperial College London researchers built a 3D model of the nose and used fluid to work out how air flows around it and how it senses different smells.
They say the study could help surgeons plan operations and develop a cure for runny noses.
The structure of the nose meant air eddied, whirled and re-circulated as it passed through the nose, the team said.
Principal researcher Dr Denis Doorly added: "People are used to the flows around an aeroplane being complicated but that is in some ways simpler than understanding the flows inside the nose.
"The geometry of the nose is highly complex, with no straight lines or simple curves like an aircraft wing and the regime of airflow is not simply laminar or turbulent."
The team, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, found the human sense of smell relies on a sample of air reaching the olfactory bulb at the top of the nose and that requires a sharp breath and a high velocity shot of air to reach it.
The geometry of the nose causes the air to move around in the vicinity of the bulb allowing smell to be sensed.
The team mapped the airflow by using coloured beads which were put through the model noses and mapped by fast digital cameras.
They also concluded the airflow was more complex than how bloods travels around the heart.
The findings were welcomed by Grant Bates, honorary secretary of the Ears, Nose and Throat Association and a consultant ENT surgeon in Oxford.
He said: "Much is known about how the nose works but any refinement of that is good.
"In our work we judge a lot on the history of the patient but what we do need is more objective measurement of airflow around the nose and this research sounds like it is achieving that."