On January 11, 2021, Air India made a historic trip with an all-women cockpit crew that flew a plane from San Francisco, US to Bengaluru, India. There are many aspects of the flight that will make you feel proud of the achievement. Also, in the technical sense, what India has achieved with this flight is unconventional and also difficult.
An Air India flight operated with a Boeing 777-200LR aircraft VT ALG under the command of Captain Zoya Aggarwal was the inaugural flight of the new route that the state-owned aviation company will take four times a week. The polar route or the North Pole route is not only fascinating because of the scenic beauty but also economical as it saves both time and fuel.
During this flight, Air India managed to save 10 tonnes of fuel. Also, the majority of flights flying from San Francisco to Bengaluru make a stop for refuelling and takes a minimum of 21 hours 50 minutes. Air India’s recent non-stop flight took only 17 hours 45 minutes saving at least four hours of journey.
The maximum duration of the journey is 39 hours, i.e. more than double of the time this flight took. Interestingly, this will be the second cheapest flight on this route too with a difference of Rs.1000 approx from the cheapest one.
Why the polar route is the shortest?
For a layman, when the route is checked on the two-dimensional map, it looks like the flight took a curve to cover the journey and it did not take the straight route which must be shorter. It is a common mistake that we all make which checking map as we forget that we are checking a two-dimensional explainer. In the simplest language, Atlas fools us.
The explanation can get too technical or confusing for anyone who is not from the aviation industry. Let’s understand it step by step and find out details of the terminologies that will help understand what actually is happening.
Before we move ahead, let’s drop the idea of a straight line on a map because when we work in three-dimensions, the straight line is a myth. See these two maps, the left one represents New York to Madrid in two-dimensions while the right one is in three-dimensions. Here, what looks like a straight line in the left one is not exactly a straight line. It’s a curve, and if you look closely, it is a longer route. This is what Atlas does to your perspective when you look at things in two-dimensions.
The great circle
Defining a geodesic or great circle route is somewhat technical. It can be defined as a circle on the globe such that the plane passing through the sphere’s center is equal to the circumference of the Earth. If we think about it in simpler terms, it is the route where the radius is equal to that of the globe and represents the shortest distance between the two points on the surface of the Earth. A great circle does not look like a straight line on the two-dimensional map and confuses the masses in general.
Gis Geography has made the concept even simpler. Imagine you are cutting down an orange. You can cut it from any direction, and if you are careful, you can make two identical portions. The circle at which you have made the cut is the great circle.
As these routes are the shortest distance between two far points, it not only saves money and time but also gives a chance to the pilots as well as the passengers to enjoy the scenic beauty of the North Pole. Most maps used for common reference use the Mercator projection and hence confuse the observers. So before you get confused, it is better to check the three-dimensional figure of the globe and the route to see where the flight is heading.
If the polar route is cheaper, why not the South Pole?
Another question that is being asked is why flights are not going via the South Pole instead of the North Pole, specifically this Air India flight when Bengaluru is in South India. It sounds like a genuine question, but please have a look at the globe. The majority of the countries, including India are in the northern hemisphere. Though Bengaluru is in South India that does not mean it is closer to the South Pole.
The second aspect of South Pole travel is the infrastructure. Compared to the North Pole, there is minimal development to support the aviation industry in the South Pole. In case of an emergency diversion, there is a lesser number of options on the lines of the South Pole.
The South Pole does not have as much land compared to the North Pole. It is not possible, as of now, to develop the region in a way that can sustain flight traffic. Also, most people live in the Northern hemisphere, the demand of Trans-Antarctic flights or flights via South Pole routes is not commercially sustainable.
Moreover, the South Pole is much cooler compared to the North Pole. There is always a chance of fuel-freezing on both routes and pilots have to descend the altitude to as low as 10,000 feet. Aviation fuel freezes at -47 degrees C. In the North Pole, the minimum temperature stays around -40 degrees C, and by lowering the altitude, pilots get the plane to a higher temperature. However, in the South Pole route, the temperature stays around -60 degrees C making is next to impossible to travel in winters. To be noted, the reduced altitude also helps in a clearer view of the location, making it an impressive journey. Some private flights take-off from Australia towards the South Pole, but those are for sightseeing purpose only.
How does the route look like on a three-dimensional map?
Nivedita Bhasin, former pilot and Executive Director Flight Safety, Air India, shared an exciting video on her Twitter handle displaying the route Air India flight took.
This is how we fly👇🏼— Nivedita Bhasin (@nivedita_bhasin) January 9, 2021
N to the North Pole , then home South ✈️🇮🇳 pic.twitter.com/7syCYCUHKc
Is this the first time Air India took the North Pole route?
No, this is not the first time Air India’s pilots took the North Pole route. In 2007, Air India operated for the first time in this route when Captain Amitabh Singh became the first pilot to take this route on his return to India after taking delivery of a brand new Boeing 777. Later in August 2019, Air India flew over the North Pole with passengers on-board. It was a flight between Delhi and San Francisco under the command of Capt Rajneesh Sharma. At that time, reports had suggested that if Air India adapts the North Pole route, it can save anywhere between 2 tonnes to 7 tonnes of fuel depending on the wind conditions.