ABSTRACT The vertical and horizontal distributions of aeolian mass flux were measured at Oceano Dunes, California, and these data were used to evaluate a numerical model of saltation. Grain-size analyses showed that the distributions of the modal sediment size class corresponded closely to those of the total sediment population, and modelling thus focused on replicating the distributions of the mean grain size. Although much previous work has assumed that the mean launch speed of saltating particles varies in proportion to shear velocity, simulations using a constant mean launch speed were found to yield the closest approximations to the mass flux distributions observed in the field. Both exponential and gamma distributions of launch velocity produced realistic simulations, although the latter approach required the inclusion of an additional reptation component to achieve good results. A range of mean launch angles and an equivalent sphere correction were also found to generate comparable results, providing the other input parameters could be varied freely. All the modelling approaches overestimated the proportion of mass flux occurring at the bottom of the vertical distributions, and underestimated the proportion occurring at the upwind end of the horizontal distributions. No theoretical shortcoming that would account for these small, but systematic, discrepancies could be identified, and experimental error thus represents a more plausible explanation. The conclusion that mean grain launch speeds are essentially constant and independent of shear velocity suggests that the additional kinetic energy extracted by grains under more energetic wind conditions is largely transferred to the bed, and that increases in the transport rate are therefore driven primarily by the ejection of additional grains. It is suggested that the kinetic energy of rebounding grains is constrained by the ability of the bed to resist deformation, equivalent to a plastic limit. Hence, grains of larger mass (diameter) rebound from the bed at lower speeds, and follow shorter, lower trajectories, as has been widely observed previously.