Posted on Apr 10, 2013 in Science & nature, Travel
I hear pilots talking about headwinds and tailwinds a lot, but how does the jet stream actually affect my flight? What exactly is the jet stream?
You’ve seen that big band on the weather maps, and you know that it occasionally drags that cold, crisp air down from the north and makes you mutter under your breath about how the Canadians should keep their air. But maybe you’ve noticed when you’re flying across the country – or the ocean – that your flight times out and back are different. So what’s the deal?
While the existence of the jet stream – or at least the effects thereof – were first observed following the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, it was Japan’s Wasaburo Ooishi who launched pilot balloons from a site near Mt Fuji and tracked their progress in the 1920s, establishing the nature of the powerful upper level current. His work went largely unnoticed outside of Japan, however, and the German meteorologist Heinrich Seilkopf is credited with creating the term Strahlströmung – literally, “jet streaming” – in 1939 that we’re familiar with today.
What it boils down to is, between altitudes of 23,000 and 39,000 feet, there is a fast flowing, narrow air current that winds its way around the top (and bottom, the southern hemisphere has a jet stream too) of the earth. This band of air generally moves faster than 50 knots (or 57 mph), but speeds upwards of 247 mph have been measured.
The end result, for you as an air traveler, is that when you board that plane in New York bound for Los Angeles, it’s going to take you about 30 minutes more to get there than it will for you to return home – thanks to the jet stream. If you fly even further, the effect is magnified dramatically. Pan Am discovered in November 1952 that if they used the jet stream while on a flight from Tokyo to Honolulu, they could cut the trip down to 11.5 hours from 18 hours. This also results in a fuel savings as well – estimates show that carriers can save up to $290 million a year simply by planning their flights on wind-optimal routes.
Now if only they’d use that savings to put real reclining seats back in the planes…
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