Home » Wind Turned Two Passenger Planes Into Supersonic Planes, Sort Of

Wind Turned Two Passenger Planes Into Supersonic Planes, Sort Of

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When developing an aircraft capable of supersonic flight, it seems like there are two options: lots of careful engineering, testing, development, and math, so much math. Or, you can just fly a normal, subsonic plane at a time and place that had massive, powerful tailwinds! That’s the solution taken by a few trans-Atlantic airliners recently, as they’ve been caught in extremely fast jet stream winds that have pushed them to speeds faster than the speed of sound. And yet, technically, they didn’t break the sound barrier? So what’s going on here?

There were a few of these recent flights: a United Airlines flight from NYC to Lisbon, Portugal on Sunday, a Virgin Atlantic flight from NYC to London also on Sunday, and an American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Doha, Qatar. All these flights exceeded 800 mph (the speed of sound is 767 mph), with the flight that landed in Qatar hitting an incredible 840 mph.

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These speeds were predicted the day before the flight by the National Weather Service, who issued this tweet noting that eastbound transatlantic winds would be at record levels, up to 265 mph!

All these flights arrived quite early to their destinations, from 20 minutes to almost an hour early, because of all the supersonic ass they were hauling. However, unlike actual supersonic aircraft like the Concorde, which could reach Mach 2.04 (1,350 mph) these aircraft did not technically break the sound barrier, because they were embedded in winds that were traveling with them, so, in relation to the surrounding air, they were still traveling at subsonic speeds:

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That’s good news since these planes’ airframes were not designed for actual supersonic travel. Even so, I think this seems like a lame way of not granting these humble Boeing 787s supersonic status, because, okay, sure, the plane is moving at subsonic speeds (still 500+ mph) relative to the surrounding envelope of wind and air, but relative to the rest of the world, that whole burrito of air and aircraft was tearing ass at over 800 mph, so that’s faster than sound, right?

Of course, in this situation, there would be no sonic boom, since the “piling up” of shockwaves in the air wouldn’t happen, since all the air was moving so fast as well.

Scientists have calculated that the fastest, upper-level Jet Stream will increase in speed by 2% for every degree Celsius (1.8° F) that the climate increases, so I suppose that’s sort of an upside to climate change? The increase in wind-assisted speeds does come at the cost of increased turbulence, so everything does have a cost. I guess that just means you should take an extra handful of weed gummies before your next transatlantic, ground-speed-supersonic flight.

 

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EricTheViking
EricTheViking
1 month ago

I flew between the United States and Germany many times. My favourite flights were from the US to Germany during the winter season since we had more chance of riding the faster jet streams, arriving in Germany earlier than scheduled.

When the ceiling-mounted CRT monitors were installed in the Lufthansa 747-400 in the 1990s, I could see how “fast” we flew. Only once did I see the “ground speed” alternating between 1,300 and 1,500 km/h for an hour or so. I queried the cabin crew about it, and they replied matter-of-factly: typisch für die Winterflüge in östlicher Richtung (typical for the winter flights in the eastern direction).

Nice to arrive in Frankfurt very early, right? Not so much. We ended up queueing up in the tight paperclip-shaped holding pattern for thirty minutes while the air traffic controllers scrambling to rearrange the landing slots for many early arrivals. Not to mention having to wait longer for my parents to arrive by car from Nuremberg to collect me.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago

Why are 5 month old stories showing on recent posts?

Doctor Nine
Doctor Nine
1 month ago

Had the same thing happen to me once while on a trampoline in the mountains west of Denver. Ended up in Kansas City on the way back down. Lost my bubble gum and everything.

Dug Deep
Dug Deep
1 month ago

So NOT supersonic, but the plane WAS passing wind?

Tim R
Tim R
1 month ago

What about flights going the other direction? Are there some poor slobs who arrived 1 hr late due to the headwind?

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim R

They probably flew a course around the jet in order to avoid the fuel penalty.

SonOfLP500
SonOfLP500
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim R

I guess it depends on the route. Travelling from Japan to Korea in the early noughties, the display showed our plane at a ground speed I thought was crazy at the time, maybe over 1200kph?
Coming back, the speed was in the 400s and the flight seemed to take forever, so I assume they had no choice other than bruting it out into the headwind.

Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim R

As a matter of fact, yes! My NYC-SFO flight took an extra hour on Sunday because of the prevailing winds. It was the final stretch of a 3-flight, 24-hours flight time (40 hours elapsed) trip home, so I was barely coherent enough at the time to wonder why the flight took so long.

It’s funny how exhausting vacation can be sometimes.

SCJeff
SCJeff
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim R

Yep, I used to travel to China a lot and one time the headwinds were so bad we needed to stop for an unscheduled refuel (in South Korea IIRC).

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
1 month ago

Doesn’t count, they were going downhill!

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago

Jet stream my ass, it’s all the political hot air this country generates now.

Steve Lee
Steve Lee
1 month ago

I hate every single article on this event. Groundspeed is completely meaningless wrt supersonic flight.

Wuffles Cookie
Wuffles Cookie
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Lee

It’s also annoying that it’s framed as some sort of unique event when in reality it is quite common in spring and fall.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Lee

Well, my car’s top speed is 67,000 MPH, because that’s how fast it travels around the Sun!
Oh, but with the solar system’s velocity through the galaxy, the top speed is 483,000 MPH!
And if we account for the galaxy’s speed through the universe, it’s almost 1.5 million MPH!

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago

Also on earth it travels over 1,000 miles an hour at the equator. 25,000 miles in 24 hours the distance around the planet in 24 hours aday.

SNL-LOL Jr
SNL-LOL Jr
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Lee

Groundspeed is everything when you are stuck in coach.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 month ago
Reply to  SNL-LOL Jr

I’ll amend that- when you’re stuck in coach, it’s how soon can I get TF out of this tin can before you people drive me crazy?

Wuffles Cookie
Wuffles Cookie
1 month ago

Perhaps I’m putting on my grumpy old man hat here, but describing the planes as “going supersonic” because plotted ground speed exceeds the speed of sound at sea level is non-sensical. An aircraft in flight only “feels” it’s airspeed, ground speed is utterly irrelevant as far as the principles of flight are concerned. You might as well say we are all going hypersonic because the Earth is orbiting the Sun at an average velocity of around 67,000 mph- it depends entirely on the reference frame chosen and you can give yourself whatever arbitrary velocity you want with the right choice. That is unfortunately what this whole “supersonic” ground speed mess is- an irrelevant reference frame that only comes into play for navigation and scheduling purposes, but has nothing whatsoever to do with flight dynamics.

I would also think someone who describes themselves as the “WeatherProf” would know that the speed of sound changes with altitude, at 40k feet it’s more than 100 mph slower in the standard atmosphere.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago
Reply to  Wuffles Cookie

I disagree. If you take off at x and arrive at y in z time that is your speed.

Ben
Ben
1 month ago

All these flights arrived quite early to their destinations, from 20 minutes to almost an hour early

Almost all of my flights arrive “early” because airlines are super conservative with their arrival time estimates so they can tout great on-time arrival stats.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben

I do the same thing at work. Tell my boss to quote the job at 100 hours when I know I can get it done in half the time. Makes review time a lot less stressful.
It’s also the reason Kirk always thought Scotty was a “miracle worker”.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
1 month ago

“I dunno, man, that other plane when by so fast he blew my doors off!” – 737 Max pilot

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
1 month ago

“…so that’s faster than sound, right?”

Perhaps consider it this way: Sound propagating in the downwind direction is also sped up by the wind, so if you were to place yourself directly in the path of the jet (which I do not recommend), its sound would reach you first. The sound is faster.

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
1 month ago

I tried to get a seat on that same flight on Saturday and when I saw EWRLIS and last weekend I thought s**t, I coulda been supersonic! But yes, the plane did not exceed Mach 1 because air speed is what matters in flight, not ground speed. That’s just the way it works.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago
Reply to  Theotherotter

That is just because of a random definition. If I arrive 800 miles away in 1 hour that’s 800 miles an hour. A constant measuring is more scientific than a random definition that can’t be measure in the same setting in different situations.

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
1 month ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

It’s not a random definition – it’s the frame of reference that’s relevant to aeronautics. How fast they’re moving over the ground is irrelevant to the performance of the wing and airframe; it only matters how fast they’re moving through the air.

Last edited 1 month ago by Theotherotter
Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago
Reply to  Theotherotter

Thanks for the information ℹ didn’t realize where this measurement would be helpful. Still don’t except for tensile strength and metal fatigue. I propose a ground speed measurement that would help customers.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
1 month ago

Don’t forget to include how much it sucks having to fly into those same headwinds.

CatMan
CatMan
1 month ago

That’s what I was thinking. How many flights going West over the Atlantic were late arriving?

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago
Reply to  CatMan

Actually all flights were outbound from the USA.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago

But by this definition flying the same speed each direction.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
1 month ago

First, that’s cool as hell. I kind of love reading about crazy ass winds on Earth when three-digit atmospheric winds* are usually the domain of other planets. I’m surprised an hour early didn’t make for issues with ATC!

Next, I’m so paranoid/hate the TSA so much I was certain the dog was going to hit on the coffee (yes, just coffee, not “coffee”) I was taking down for a coffee swap when my last job flew all the engineers down for a meetup.

*As opposed to storms at the surface like tornados, hurricanes, etc.

Wuffles Cookie
Wuffles Cookie
1 month ago
Reply to  Mechjaz

crazy ass winds on Earth when three-digit atmospheric winds* are usually the domain of other planets.

The jet stream averages around 110 mph, and the katabatics off Antartica sit above 100 mph for most of the winter, humans just tend to live in disproportionately non-windy places.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
1 month ago
Reply to  Wuffles Cookie

Gah, I had this unnecessarily tortured sentence about >100 mph winds or four digit winds, and edited it down, but I take your meaning. I’m fascinated by strong winds, let’s say that 🙂

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