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The Jetstream and Transatlantic Speed Records

Extreme weather conditions allow airplanes to beat speed records

A LOT 787-8 in Los Angeles (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

What might be a challenge for some will be an opportunity for others. Storm Ciarán is the most commonly recognized implication of the recent weather conditions above the Atlantic Ocean. Dangerously powerful winds are recking havoc in many regions of Europe, bringing airport operations to a halt, even at major airports like Amsterdam-Shiphol.

Aerial Superhighways

The extreme weather conditions are reinforcing jetstreams – a natural phenomenon occurring in the Earth’s atmosphere. Those are relatively narrow beams of fast-flowing air, typically in a west-to-east direction.

The frame of reference for a flying plane is the air around it. In this kind of setup, the limiting factor for the aircraft is the airspeed. Airspeed determines how much lift and drag – forces that are working to lift the aircraft or slow it down respectively – the aircraft encounters.

A natural threshold that is impossible to cross for airliners is the speed of sound. On the height of a cruising plane, that speed hovers right above 1000 km/h.

Working together with a jetstream, a plane can combine its own airspeed with the speed of the wind, reaching a new, higher ground speed. This way, passenger aircraft, normally flying around 800-900 km/h, can reach ground speeds that look, like it might be breaking the speed of sound.

Jetstream illustration (Photo: Fred the Oyster | Wikimedia Commons)

Bending the Time

Some passengers are usually puzzled when they see that their transatlantic flights are not equal in duration when traveling both ways. The difference in the ground speed between flying eastwards and westwards is the factor contributing most to that occurrence. The difference might be significant; often the scheduled time for the flight eastward, with the help of tailwinds, is 1.5h shorter than the flight in the other direction, which deals with headwinds instead.

Other factors that can contribute to the difference in flight time are the path that the pilots choose or the congestion on air “highways.” With the current Russian airspace closures for the European carriers, it is common to reach the Asian Far East flying southbound but the come back to Europe with a northbound, transpolar route.

At Least One Record Broken

This time, a success is celebrated at LOT Polish Airlines. Flight LO15 from Newark airport landed one hour ahead of schedule. The flight time got down to 6h 55min, marking a record of the Polish national carrier on this route. The ground speed reached 665 kts, or roughly 1230 km/h.

LOT Polish Airlines flight LO16 over the Atlantic on the 1 of November 2023 (Photo: Flightradar24)

The absolute record of passenger transatlantic flights is still standing, though. In February 2020, British Airways flight BA112 set the current record of an estimated 1325 km/h. The news was quickly overthrown on the top news pages by the looming flight cancellations of March 2020.

Filip Kopeć

Author

  • Filip Kopeć

    A passionate aviation enthusiast that started off his career as an aerospace engineer, but found his true calling on the commercial side of the airline business. Now as a finance guy among avgeeks and an avgeek among finance guys, he has experience working in the Revenue Divisions of three airlines. In his spare time he enjoys traveling, but admittedly sometimes is more about the journey than the destination.

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