Over the Top

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


Aboard United 851, October 12–13, 2007

United 851 leaves about 45 minutes late. It takes a good while to pack 347 passengers and 19 crew (including four pilots) into this enormous Boeing 747. Economy Class has a 3-4-3 configuration, and I drew seat 29B, a “middle” seat. My elbow-mates are a retired math teacher from Chicago and an executive M.B.A. student from the University of Virginia, whose entire class is spending a week at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing. Nice field trip. But I guess you could say that about me, too.

We climb above thick clouds, over Milwaukee, Lake Superior, and straight north across Canada. About a half-hour ago, after a few minutes of turbulence, the clouds broke and we could see the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean, just north of the Canadian landmass, south of the Queen Elizabeth Islands. This is the legendary Northwest Passage. (I know our position, altitude, and speed from the video monitor. We’re flying 565 miles per hour at 30,000 feet.)

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Sunlight glints off Arctic Ocean wetlands between the Canadian mainland and the Queen Elizabeth Islands.

The sun is low in the southwest, like a golden searchlight beam reflecting aloft from thousands of puddles, ponds, and weblike watercourses. Away from the sun’s illumination, you see only snow and ice, in dune-like formations—hill and dale of white. But as it passes beneath us and enters the sun’s bright beam, this apparently frozen terrain turns out to be the part of the same watery wonderland.

As I write this, it’s about 5:45 p.m. CDT. We’ve been in the air a little more than four hours, which leaves about nine to go. I keep expecting that the sun will set pretty soon. But it’s risen in Beijing, where it’s already tomorrow morning.

7:00 p.m. CDT

As the sun plays tag with the southern horizon (remember, when you are at the North Pole, every direction is south), the clouds part occasionally so that we can glimpse the polar ice cap.

The sun never quite sets. It stays in the South, hovering at the horizon as we drive further north, but it never quite dips behind the clouds, shining obliquely into the port-side windows of the 747. About halfway into the 13-hour flight it starts to rise again.

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Well above the Arctic Circle, crevasses in the Arctic Ocean ice are seen from 30,000 feet. Note the jet engine contrail.

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Approaching the northernmost point of the flight, we see the sun almost dip below the southern horizon. Clouds obscure the ice below.

I’ve been trying to work out the geometry of this. As an amateur astronomer I like to visualize the geometries of the solar system and the earth-moon system as the months and seasons progress. Where are Mars, Jupiter, and Venus on their own tracks around the sun? When will the moon rise tomorrow night? But this flight presents another sort of geometry altogether.

Think of a satellite in polar orbit, that is, one that orbits “north-south” as the earth rotates beneath it. This plane is a lot slower than a satellite, but the proper motion is the same. The tip-off is the fact that the sun never changed position as we went over the “top” of the planet. In fact, our star conveniently stayed behind the portside wing of the aircraft, so it never really bothered my elbow-mates and me—and we could leave the shade open when others forward and aft of us could not. This went on for hours.

Once we reached our most northerly latitude—a few degrees from the pole—and started back “down” the other side, the rotation of the earth plus the speed of the 747 pretty much kept the sun in place. Only its altitude (what astronomers would call its “declination”) changed, until finally it rose above the shadowing wing and climbed into the daytime once again.

We’re nine hours into the flight, and the rugged majesty of far-eastern Siberia is gliding beneath us. The snow-covered Verkhoyanskiy Mountains are close by the Arctic Ocean, followed by the equally forbidding Aldan Plain.

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The Verkhoyanskiy Mountains in far-eastern Siberia.

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We followed the Angara River for about a half-hour as we flew south over the Aldan Plain. Here we saw the first signs of human habitation since crossing the pole.

These barren mountains northwest of Beijing also show signs of human activity. This was not true for the vast desert of Mongolia farther to the north.
These barren mountains northwest of Beijing also show signs of human activity. This was not true for the vast desert of Mongolia farther to the north.

It’s a little after midnight back in Delaware, where I started my day at 5:30 a.m. We’ll be landing in Beijing in a few minutes, where it will be about 3 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 13. I haven’t slept much on the plane (I never do), so I think my strategy will be to get to the hotel, get a shower, eat an early dinner, and get to sleep by about 9.

By then, the sun will surely have set.

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2 responses to “Over the Top

  1. Hi Jeff! Glad I found your blog just in time to keep up with your travels this week. Hope you got a good night’s rest in Beijing!

  2. Barbara and Ellie Amann

    Please say Happy Birthday to Poppy Pete Thompson for us who is on the trip. We hope he has recovered enough from jet lag to celebrate in Beijing. He also enjoys astronomy so will enjoy that part of your blog.

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