India and the Polar Route

Travel from the US to Asia has been shortened by use of the “Polar Route“, which means flying over Greenland and the north and then traveling across Russia to Asian countries. It should have been obvious to me that we were taking the polar route since it was a long, direct flight out (to Hong Kong, with connections) but I really didn’t think about it until we started flying north, over Canada.

As someone who has spent their entire life studying military history, particularly the Russian fronts, it was fascinating to me that I was actually flying over that country. When you are up over Canada and over Russia and looking at the sparsely populated map on the flight display it does get a little unnerving. When I got back home I looked up the “diversion airports” and there are a few here and there over Canada and then over Russia but it is a long way between them in what would be the dead of winter.

Also interesting is the distorting effect of Greenland on maps as you near the north pole. Greenland is actually about the size of Mexico but of course it seems enormous due to the distorting tendency of common mapping technology.

On the outbound flight we were in a United 747, a four engine aircraft. On the return flight we were in a 777, a two engine aircraft. It is a bit scary to fly over the far north in an aircraft that presumably wouldn’t get far on a single engine. To make matters worse we were waylaid on the tarmac for a few hours before we took off due to “engine troubles”. We made it, but it was a bit hair raising. Per wikipedia there haven’t been any serious incidents with the 777 but our faith in mechanical airplanes is truly amazing.

I also learned to sympathize with flying from the developing nation point of view. The Delhi airport was busy at 2:30am because flights take off in the wee hours of the night in order to arrive in the West at a reasonable hour. It was brutal for me to stay awake that late and it didn’t seem to help my jet lag which I really wasn’t cured of for over a week.

Cross posted at LITGM

13 thoughts on “India and the Polar Route”

  1. Don’t Panic !! :-) A 777 will fly and land (and even complete take-off if it can’t stop on the runway after an engine failure during take-off roll) on one engine. This applies to any modern twin airliner. They are certified to remain within 180 minutes flight time (on one engine) of a diversion airport.

  2. I believe – prior to the 777 – no 2 engined plane was certificated to fly over water more than X hours (you will see Alaska Air 737s and 757s fly from Seattle to Anchorage.

    The 777 still had to prove that it could fly on one engine for x Hours

  3. Bill Brandt, they still aren’t (except that over water doesn’t matter, it’s time to diversion field). However the value of x has changed over time. It’s all laid out at the link I provided.

  4. Polar navigation has historically been a challenge…the magnetic compass becomes useless, and an aircraft directional gyro (heading indicator) drifts if it isn’t periodically reset using the magnetic. Prior to inertial navigation and GPS, you were pretty much dependent on celestial navigation.

    Which must have especially been a challenge in a single-pilot plane. During the Cuban missile crisis, a U-2 got fairly lost an unintentionally violated Soviet airspace.

  5. Errol – there is a columnist for Flying Magazine who is a 777 Captain for an airline he doesn’t identify and regularly makes the Atlantic run. Of course Greenland and Iceland and Newfoundland aren’t that far off ;-)

  6. Robert Schwartz

    That circle mapper tool is great! I saw it earlier but couldn’t find it when it was time for the post.

    On the way out I flew Chicago to Hong Kong and on the way back Mumbai to Chicago.

    Both times over interesting parts of the world

  7. Thank you Robert Schwartz for that great toy. I have a related question on Airline routing. In 2009 I flew nonstop NY to Tokyo. We went over the Arctic Ocean, hit Siberia went over the Verkhoyansk Mountains (according to the screen showing the route) and went SSE to Tokyo. Why would they do something so circuitous? An analogy would be London to New Orleans non-stop, but overflying Minneapolis.This bothers my sense of order.

  8. Renminbi: Great Circle Mapper says JFK-NRT goes over the north coast of Alaska and down the pacific coast of Russia. If they deviated from that I would guess that weather was responsible.

    I noticed they have an additional web portal:

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