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Explained: What is a jet stream, which helped a flight beat speed record?

The Boeing 747-436 plane was able to achieve a speed of 1,327 kph as it was aided by a strong jet stream generated due to Storm Ciara. Other flights travelling across the North Atlantic from west to east also experienced shorter travel times.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: February 11, 2020 8:17:15 am
A British Airways flight broke the subsonic speed record during its New York-to-London journey on Sunday.

On Sunday, a British Airways flight broke the subsonic speed record during its New York-to-London journey, surpassing the previous record by 17 minutes, and completing the trip 80 minutes sooner than estimated.

The Boeing 747-436 plane was able to achieve a speed of 1,327 kph as it was aided by a strong jet stream generated due to Storm Ciara. Other flights travelling across the North Atlantic from west to east also experienced shorter travel times.

The Swedish flight tracking service Flightradar24 tweeted, “Thanks to a strong, well-positioned jet stream, a @British_Airways 747 managed a new New York-London subsonic speed record today, making the journey in 4 hours 56 minutes—17 minutes faster than the previous record.”

What are jet streams?

Jet streams are narrow bands of strong winds that flow over thousands of kilometres from west to east. Major jet streams are found near the upper levels of the atmosphere, around 9 to 16 km from the earth’s surface, and can reach speeds of over 320 kph.

The jet streams shift to the north or south depending on the season. During winters, the wind current is the strongest. They are also closer to the Equator during winter.

The major jet streams are the Polar Front, Subtropical, and Tropical jet streams. In India, the Tropical jet stream influences the formation and duration of the summer monsoon.

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How did the British Airways flight achieve such high speeds?

Most commercial planes fly at the jet stream level, and a strong jet stream can provide a potent tailwind to a flight travelling from west to east, like the British Airways flight, which flew from New York to London. This helps reduce the travel time for such flights, as their speeds are boosted.

Storm Ciara, which affected northern Europe on Sunday, helped create a powerhouse jet stream in the North Atlantic.

Long-distance flights, which generally travel at speeds of around 900 kph, can fly faster when aided by such a jet stream, as in case of the British Airways flight, which achieved speeds above 1300 kmph. A BBC report said that the pilot of the flight would have sat the plane at the core of the jet stream, thus taking advantage of its speed.

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