About that 22-hour flight

There’s been some news buzz lately about the nonstop flight from Hong Kong to London put on by Boeing to demo a new long-range plane. When we first heard about it, we opined to Mrs Heathen that presumably that was the distance over land, i.e. flying west out of Hong Kong. In fact, we were wrong (we blame Mississippi public schools).

Salon’s Ask the Pilot has a great piece on this today. Hong Kong to London is not a new route, and in fact typically takes more like 12 hours — and, as we expected, goes in a westerly direction, not east over two oceans (for reasons discussed below, using either basic compass point is a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea). This new Boeing flight is notable not because it went from Hong Kong to London, but because it took the long way around as a distance demo (and in so doing covered something like 11,664 nautical miles, a commercial record). As the world is “only” about 21,600 nautical miles around, a flight of better than half the planet’s circumference means any two cities are now easily connectable by the Boeing jet.

Of course, connectable and financially feasible are two different things; plenty of routes are theoretically possible, but lack passenger volumes to justify them. No airline will be adding the HKG-LHR route Boeing used, but there are 10K+ routes that might make sense. The Pilot (linked above) has more.

Also, if, like us, you are amused by the prospect of considering whether east or west is the best route for these long flights, you’ll probably also enjoy his earlier discussion of Great Circle navigation. Remember, our mental images of the world are utterly broken, since almost everyone studies flat maps. These work if you’re driving, or flying from Houston to Dallas, but when you start covering thousands of miles the straight line routes mapped on globe start differing dramatically from those foolishly plotted on planar representations thereof. (For example: the route from New York to Hong Kong goes not west or east but north.)

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