Flying the Polar Route

Want to start reading at the beginning of the trip? Click here.

Philadelphia International Airport, Oct. 12, 0815 EDT

I love to fly, and I especially like to know about the route we are taking and the things we will pass over. Before we left for China, I did a little research about the polar route taken by United Airlines (and others) from the eastern U.S. to Asia. I’m eating breakfast while waiting for our flight to Chicago, which leaves in about an hour. After a 90-minute layover at O’Hare, we’re off to China. Look at the route that we will take from Chicago to Beijing. The yellow circle is 82 degrees north latitude.

UAL Polar Routes

Have you ever been this far north? Early 20th-century explorers of the North—Peary, Byrd, Amundsen—could scarcely have imagined that more than 2.000 commercial airline flights a year would routinely cross their hard-won frozen sea above the Arctic Circle.







According to an article in The New York Times (10-11-2000): “Routine transpolar flight became possible only after the end of the Cold War, when the United States and Russia stopped being so concerned about watching for strategic bombers, and with the development of planes like the Boeing 747-400 and the Airbus A-340, with ranges of about 9,000 nautical miles.”

Here’s a 747. Pretty.

747 UAL

For the airlines, the benefit of transpolar flight is measured in fuel dollars and efficiency. For passengers, in hours. Time equals money in today’s world—for everyone.

In the same Times article, we learn that “navigating over the pole includes odd problems. Compasses are useless, and the geo-stationary satellites that planes in oceanic flight use to relay their position to the ground also become useless, because they hang over the Equator and are not visible from the pole. But the Global Positioning System works, and so does inertial navigation.” Hooray for the GPS, which we also use in our cars and boats. It’s always good to know where you are—especially if you want to decide where you’re going.And then there’s the radiation problem. When you fly near the pole, there’s a lot more radiation—not all of it good—from the sun and other cosmic sources. This has nothing to do with the ozone hole; the fact is, the earth’s magnetic field doesn’t protect us as well at higher latitudes. Plus, the atmosphere is thinner near the poles.

An article in the International Herald Tribune (5-24-01) informed travelers that “airlines flying the North Pole route said they do not inform passengers of the increased cosmic radiation risks. But they said they take precautionary measures, such as monitoring for solar storms.” Airline flight directors report that, when solar activity is high, flights have been rerouted away from the pole or sent to lower altitudes—both of which increase fuel costs (some planes have had to make a gas stop in Alaska) and cause passengers to be late. Pregnant women have been advised to avoid flights over the pole and there’s some concern for frequent business flyers.

The flight crews who make transpolar trips get a lot more radiation than the frequent flyers. One good argument for banning smoking in bars and restaurants is that the people who work in those places are exposed to more second-hand smoke than casual patrons encounter. (The same argument was also made when smoking was prohibited on airplanes more than 20 years ago.) So now the airlines rotate flight crews so that the total annual exposure is lessened.

Curiously, in the media, radiation risk is measured in chest x-rays. A flight over the pole is the equivalent of about 2 chest x-rays, depending on who’s doing the measuring. But isn’t that like measuring the distance to the moon in football fields? How many touchdowns does it take to get to the Sea of Tranquility? Of course, getting to China should be a lot easier than getting to the moon.

We’ll be there tomorrow. I’ll let you know…


4 responses to “Flying the Polar Route

  1. Viva China!! heehee

  2. Jeff – Great blog. I love the fact that you took the time to send an entry from the airport before you even left. The stuff about the transpolar route is interesting. Keep ’em coming!

  3. We are leaving from Hartford/Chicago to Beijing on Monday, 4/13/08.
    My sister asked me what route we will take so I did a little research and came up with your site. Thought it was very interesting. We will probably hit the pole arould dark and I’m sure we will not see much. From 40 thousand feet you aren’t going to see a hell of a lot anyway. It’ll be interesting anyway. If I can remember to get back to you on my return (May 4) I’ll let you know if I am glowing.
    Dave S.

  4. I don’t know man but for me, that is scary, and im thinking about the effects of radiation and solar storms on the plane, not me. Radiation can alter almost anything when theres enough of it.

    Problem is its much faster to take that route.

    Not sure if im willing to take that risk yet. Id love it if they could show us how planes are supposed to be safe in that kind of environment.

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