Over this past weekend, a British Airways Boeing 747 set a new world record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Here are the details.
The Normal Route
Normally a flight from New York to London is accomplished in about 6 hours and 15 minutes. The airliner would be cruising along between 590 and 650 mile per hour. Jets flying this route generally cruise above 30,000 feet.
This past weekend, British Airways Flight 112 flew from New York’s JFK to London’s Heathrow on 4 hours and 56 minutes. This is over an hour faster than the average time. At points along the route, the twenty year old Boeing 747-400 was flying at over 800 miles per hour ground speed.
How Did They Do It?
What accounts for such a fantastic time? The wind my friend, the wind. The wind can be a pilot’s best friend or worst enemy. On February 8/9 it was British Airway’s Bosom Buddy. The aircraft picked up a 200+ mph tailwind. The wind essentially pushed the airplane along, effectively causing it to travel 200 miles further each hour over the ground than it would have with a calm wind.
How Can Wind Be That Strong?
The discovery of such high winds, for centuries unheard of outside of a hurricane, was only made in the last 100 years. The advent of high altitude flight led to the discovery. Wiley Post, who set several aviation records in the 1930s, is generally credited with the finding. Post was attempting to cross North America and noticed his ground speed was well above his indicated airspeed. Post correctly attributed this phenomenon to an unusually high tailwind. As a tragic footnote, Post was killed, along with his friend, American humorist Will Rogers (I never met a man I didn’t like) in a plane crash in 1935.
The Name and Phenomenon
A German meteorologist, Heinrich Seilkopf, is credited with naming the jet stream in 1939. There are actually three jet streams operating above the earth. They always flow west to east (due to the earth’s rotation) and are strongest in winter. The Polar Jet Stream is the strongest and was operating along British Airways Flight 112’s flight path over the weekend. The National Weather Service has an excellent site on the jet stream.
A Footnote to the Record
The British Airways 747 broke the sub sonic (below the speed of sound) record by 17 minutes this past weekend. However, the supersonic record is still held by a British Airways-Air France Concorde in 2 hours and 52 minutes. The graceful bird set the record in 1996 when it was cruising over 1,350 mph (Mach 2+). For more details on the 747’s record and a picture of the jet stream and flight path, see this Weather Site.