Why does it take longer to fly from east to west on an airplane?
I am a former United States Air Force pilot and flight instructor. A couple of years ago, I was in the seat of a Boeing 747 aircraft. I was at 29,000 feet in the air, flying across New Jersey to Sacramento, California, and back to Hawaii. It took me six hours to fly and then land it safely at Sacramento. After a couple of hours in California, I headed to Hawaii, which took nearly 5 hours. This was a total of 11 hours of travel.
After soaking up the sun in Hawaii after a wonderful vacation, it was time to return home to New Jersey. The flight was much quicker. I did not make a stop in California this time. However, the return flight took just eight and one-half hours. I was flying on the same aircraft, In fact, New Jersey wasn’t any closer to California or Hawaii than it was several days earlier.
Then why was my trip to Hawaii from east to west taking so much longer than my return flight?
Jet streams are always blowing from east to west and are found in a variety of places across the globe. Lyndon State College Meteorology via Wikipedia
A floating on the air of a river
The reason it took longer to return home is it was due to a jet stream that flows through swiftly moving air high in the sky.
Jet streams typically are around 100 miles long. They can stretch hundreds of miles long and are all over the world. To qualify as a jet stream, the wind has to be moving at a speed of more than 60 mph.
Jet streams typically flow across the western hemisphere to the east of the Earth, usually traveling along a meandering curve similar to rivers on land. The jet stream that flows over the United States never stays in the same place. It is more likely to travel further south and more powerfully in winter and travel further north but does not blow as strongly in summer.
What is this got to do with planes? to have to do with planes?
The wind is blowing in the air
Airplane pilots gauge speed using two methods. One is airspeed. It measures how much wind speed you would feel when you push your hand through the window. The second one is the speed of ground, which is the speed at which the plane is gliding across the earth. If you fly in the jet stream, the speed of your flight remains constant. However, your ground speed will fluctuate a bit because the air surrounding your plane moves.
When I was flying to Hawaii, I was flying at 562 miles per hour. However, because the stream of jets was blowing on my aircraft – referred to as the headwind – with a speed of 140 mph, I was just moving along the ground at 422 miles per hour.
However, when traveling across Hawaii from Hawaii to New Jersey, the jet stream blows out from behind the plane, pushing the plane forward. I was flying with 562 mph airspeed. However, the tailwind was 140 mph, which resulted in my aircraft traveling through the air at 702 mph.
Planes try to stay clear of the jet stream while traveling east-west and back, but it is possible to catch a ride on the way back. ChaosNil via Wikipedia
Pilots have plans to speed up
When pilots decide on the course for their flight, they usually utilize forecasts of the weather to determine which direction the jet stream will be blowing. When flying from east to west, they attempt to design their journey to ensure that the jet stream doesn’t come in contact with their plane and creating an unfavorable headwind. If they decide to fly from the west to the east, they search for the jet stream and attempt to fly in a way that will provide them with a strong tailwind that will allow them to fly more quickly. A well-planned plan can also help to conserve fuel.
When you next find yourself flying over the country between East and West, do not be surprised if it takes longer than you expected. However, be happy knowing that the moment you return, the pilot may be catching an excursion along the jet stream in order to get your home in a hurry.
Sustainable aviation fuels could reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of an aircraft’s net emissions by about 80 percent. However, there is a shortage of fuel, and using biomass as fuel may be in competition with the production of food and cause forest destruction.
Another option is to use synthetic aviation fuels that are sustainable, which involve taking carbon dioxide from the air and other manufacturing processes and synthesizing it using hydrogen. It’s a difficult and costly process, and it isn’t at a large production capacity yet.