ORLANDO, Fla. – You may have heard about a major storm blasting parts of Europe with heavy rain and winds greater than 100 mph. Well, the jet stream fueling that massive storm is also creating an insane tailwind for west-to-east traveling flights.
Dozens of flights Wednesday and Thursday were topping ground speeds of 700 mph, helped out by a nearly 200 mph tailwind at approximately 39,000 feet. Pilots were finding the jet stream, a fast-moving ribbon of air where jet aircraft fly, to arrive to their destinations early.
Thursday, a British Airlines flight was moving at 746 mph, according to flightaware.com. It’s filed planned speed was 565 mph. The extra push from an extremely strong jet stream moved up their expected arrival time by more than an hour!
The jet stream divides warm air from cold air. It is stronger, faster, in the colder months because differences in temperature from the polar regions to the tropics are maximized. It’s the differences in temperature and pressure that drive the jet stream.
While definitely not always this extreme, pilots flying from west to east — the typical motion of the jet stream — locate the jet stream on a daily basis to help give them a boost. That is why oftentimes you may arrive early to your destination if you were flying from, say, St. Louis to New York. On your way back, the flight time is typically a little longer since you are fighting the jet stream as a headwind.
It is important to note that ground speed is different than air speed. The airliner, while approaching the speed of sound, was not about to go supersonic. The air speed, or how fast the plane was going on its own power, was about 565 mph, about 200 mph less than the speed of sound. It was the ground speed that was nearly the speed the speed of sound.
Think of ground speed as walking on an airport people mover. If you maintain the same walking speed as you enter the people mover, you yourself aren’t moving any faster, but you are moving faster relative to the objects you pass by. The speed likely would not have been noticeable if you were a passenger on this flight.
The airliner itself would have to be travelling 760 mph to considered supersonic.
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