The present study is a prelude to applying different flow control devices on pitching and plunging airfoils with the intention of controlling the growth of the leading edge vortex (LEV); hence, the lift under unsteady stall conditions. As a pre-requisite the parameters influencing the development of the LEV topology must be fully understood and this constitutes the main motivation of the present experimental investigation. The aims of this study are twofold. First, an approach is introduced to validate the comparability between flow fields and LEV characteristics of two different facilities using water and air as working media by making use of a common baseline case. The motivation behind this comparison is that with two facilities the overall parameter range can be significantly expanded. This comparison includes an overview of the respective parameter ranges, control of the airfoil kinematics and careful scrutiny of how post-processing procedures of velocity data from time-resolved particle image velocimetry (PIV) influence the integral properties and topological features used to characterise the LEV development. Second, and based on results coming from both facilities, the appearance of secondary structures and their effect on LEV detachment over an extended parameter range is studied. ... mehrA Lagrangian flow field analysis based on finite-time Lyapunov Exponent (FTLE) ridges allows precise identification of secondary structures and reveals that their emergence is closely correlated to a vortex Reynolds number threshold computed from the LEV circulation. This threshold is used to model the temporal onset of secondary structures. Further analysis indicates that the emergence of secondary structures causes the LEV to stop accumulating circulation if the shear layer angle at the leading edge of the flat plate has ceased to increase. This information is of particular importance for advanced flow control applications, since efforts to strengthen and/or prolong LEV growth rely on precise knowledge about where and when to apply flow control measures.