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How Extremely High Jet Stream Winds Helped Set a New Flight Speed Record

Everyone who flies likely checks the weather. Typically, most people will look at the current conditions at the airport they are leaving and for the city they are flying to. One thing many people probably don’t look at is what the weather is doing when they’re on the plane.

Winds can either shorten or make longer your flight time depending on the direction of the wind and the direction you’re flying. For example, winds blowing in the same direction as your travel are called tailwinds. These are the ones you want if you want a shorter flight. This is because the tailwind is giving the plane an extra push forward, which in turn makes it go faster. The opposite is a headwind, and these will make your flight longer because the wind will be blowing into your plane and as a result making it slower.

Headwinds and tailwinds are the reason why flights to Europe from the United States are quicker, and flights from to the United States from Europe are longer.

However one flight yesterday had an extremely high boost as it traveled through the northeastern United States.

Take a look at this upper level map which shows the jet stream yesterday evening.

Within the jet stream is something called a jet streak. This is defined as an area within the jet stream of relatively high winds. The jet streak in the map above is shown in purple. Within this area winds are at 150 knots or greater, which converts to over 170 mph.

One area in particular had extremely high winds, even relative to that. Below is what meteorologists call a sounding. This is created from weather data measured during a weather balloon launch.

This sounding was from the 7 PM launch from the National Weather Service Office in New York City. I have highlighted in a red box a measurement of 200 knots, which converts to 230 mph.

This additional tailwind helped Virgin Atlantic 8 reach speeds of 801 mph. That sets a new commercial airline speed record. Typically, commercial planes fly at around 550 mph.

That extra boost made this normally 10 and a half hour flight shorter. After taking off from Los Angeles around 3 PM PST yesterday afternoon, it arrived in London almost 50 minutes early this morning.

-Chief Meteorologist Brian Walder


Brian Walder

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