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Polar Routes: Flights That Go over Earth's Poles

Trans-polar routes cut down on the number of miles flown and the time it takes to connect destinations in Asia or the Middle East with those in North America.

Polar Routes: Flights That Go over Earth's Poles
Trans-polar routes Helen-Nicole Kostis/Nasa

When we think of airplane travel between, let's say, North America and Asia, we envision a long trip laterally across the Pacific Ocean, but in reality, there's a much shorter way to go — over the North Pole.

Routes over our Earth's poles are aptly called polar routes, and the Federal Aviation Administration defines the North Polar area as north of 78 ° latitude. This is north of Alaska and most of Siberia.

North Polar routes are typically flown between Asian cities and North American cities. Emirates Airlines flies a non-stop polar route between Dubai and San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. On August 15, 2019, Air India initiated a non-stop North Polar flight, AI-173, between New Delhi and San Francisco.

North Polar routes
Polar routes Source: Rolypolyman/Wikimedia Commons

On March 5, 2001, the FAA released its Guidance for Polar Operations, which listed a number of requirements for polar routes. These include that all flights carry two cold-weather suits, have special communications equipment, and employ fuel freeze monitoring.

Aviation jet fuel freezes at between -40 and -58 ° F (-40 to -50 ° C). While these temperatures are frequently encountered at cruise altitude, the fuel normally retains warmth from when it was added. However, during long polar flights, the fuel could reach its freezing point.

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Modern aircraft alert the flight crew if fuel temperatures approach 5.4 ° F (3 ° C) of its freezing point. The pilots must then descend to a lower and warmer altitude. Over the polar regions, due to inversions where cold air is trapped nearer to the surface, the air at lower altitudes may actually be colder than that at higher altitudes.

History of polar routes

The first flight over the North Pole was achieved on June 18, 1937, by Soviet pilot Valery Chkalov. He flew from Moscow, Russia to Vancouver, Washington, a distance of 5,475 miles (8,811 km), in a Tupolev ANT-25 aircraft.

In October 1946, a U.S. crew flew a modified B-29 aircraft 9,422 miles (15,162 km) over the Arctic from Oahu, Hawaii, to Cairo, Egypt.

The first commercial polar route was flown in November 1954 by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), the flag carrier of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. It flew between Los Angeles and Copenhagen, with refueling stops in Winnipeg, Canada, and Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland.

By 1957, both Pan Am and TWA were flying polar routes from the U.S. West Coast to Paris and London. Also that year, SAS inaugurated a Europe to Tokyo route with a fuel stop in Anchorage.

Soon, the Anchorage International Airport (ANC) was the stop for a number of airlines flying between Europe and Tokyo. These included British Airways, Air France, Japan Air Lines, KLM, Lufthansa, and SAS.

Most airlines used Boeing 747 aircraft to fly over the pole, while the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 was also used.

In 1983, Finnish airline Finnair began flying the polar route non-stop between Helsinki and Tokyo.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War meant that the airspace over the North Pole could get a bit crowded. Between 1960 and 1968, as part of its Operation Chrome Dome, the U.S. maintained continuously airborne, nuclear-armed B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers just outside Russia's northern border.

Russia's Long-Range Aviation performed a similar service for the Soviet Union, continuously testing the readiness of the U.S. Alaskan Command and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

This faceoff had tragic consequences when on April 20, 1978, Korean Air Lines Flight 902, a Boeing 707 flying between Paris and Seoul, deviated from its polar route and flew into Soviet airspace. After being fired on by a Soviet fighter, the plane made an emergency landing on the frozen Korpiyarvi Lake, and two of the 109 passengers and crew on board were killed.

In 1993, the Russian-American Coordinating Group for Air Traffic (RACGAT) was formed, and by 1998, the two countries had agreed to four polar routes — Polar 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The first non-stop polar flight over Russian airspace was on July 7, 1998, when Cathay Pacific Flight 889 flew from New York's JFK to the Hong Kong International Airport. Called "Polar One," it took 16 hours, and the flight is still flown today.

No polar routes over the South Pole

While the North Pole sees quite a bit of traffic, the South Pole does not. While no airline currently flies a South Polar route, several routes do skirt the Antarctic coastline.

Qantas flight QFA63 between Sydney and Johannesburg, South Africa, reaches 71 ° south latitude, and Qantas' flights between Sydney and Santiago, Chile, reach 55 ° south latitude.

Southern routes flown by LATAM Airlines between Melbourne, Australia and Santiago, Chile, and Air New Zealand routes between Auckland and Buenos Aires, Argentina also reach far southern latitudes.

Airlines previously prohibited twin-engine aircraft from operating more than a set distance from an airport in case of an emergency. This meant that only four-engine aircraft such as the Boeing 747, Airbus A340 and A380, were allowed to operate routes near Antarctica.

However, in 2015, Air New Zealand was allowed to fly non-stop between Auckland and Buenos Aires using a twin-engined Boeing 777-200ER. Twin-engine aircraft must remain a maximum distance of 330 minutes away from the nearest airport.

Also, in 2015, LATAM Airlines began flying non-stop flights between Santiago, Chile, and Sydney, Australia using a twin-engined Boeing 787 with the same 330-minute requirement.

Sometimes, the shortest distance between two points is unexpectedly over the poles.

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