Fastest Subsonic Transatlantic Flight Just Happened with a 747
Roopinder Tara posted on February 11, 2020 |
Storm winds of 260 mph helped greatly

The record for the fastest subsonic flight across the Atlantic is now held by the most unlikely looking of aircraft, the ungainly, humpbacked Boeing 747, basically the same design that first took to the air some 50 years ago.

Boeing 747-400 (Picture courtesy of British Airways)
Boeing 747-400 (Picture courtesy of British Airways)

The British Airways flight 112 left New York’s JFK airport Friday evening and landed a little less than 5 hours (4:56) later at London’s Heathrow airport -- almost an hour and a half ahead of schedule Saturday morning.

Flightradar24.com recognized the record later that day. British Airways had beaten the previous record for NY-London that was held by Norwegian airlines with a much more modern Boeing 787 going from New York to London’s Gatwick airport in 5 hours and 13 minutes.

Flightradar24 states the top speed of the BA flight was 825 mph.

British Airways takes advantage of Storm Ciara’s 265 mph tailwind to set a record for a transatlantic subsonic flight. (Picture courtesy of Flightradar24)
British Airways takes advantage of Storm Ciara’s 265 mph tailwind to set a record for a transatlantic subsonic flight. (Picture courtesy of Flightradar24)

It may come as a surprise that the huge, widebody, twin aisle, dual deck aircraft is the fastest passenger plane flying but its 4 turbofan allow it be certified to Mach 0.92. The aircraft’s cruising speed is 565 mph, according to British Airways.

How the 747 was able to get up to 825 mph without breaking the sound barrier -- or breaking apart -- has to do with groundspeed vs airspeed.

The speed of sound at sea level is 761 mph. At 30,000 ft or cruising altitude the speed of sound drops to 678.mph.

The Saturday evening Atlantic jet stream analysis shows a 260 mph jet at the 34,000 ft, as the UK braced for Storm Ciara.(Picture courtesy of Strangesounds.org)
The Saturday evening Atlantic jet stream analysis shows a 260 mph jet at the 34,000 ft, as the UK braced for Storm Ciara.(Picture courtesy of Strangesounds.org)

The BA flight had the advantage of tailwinds of up to 260 mph (according to BBC Weather) on its way to the UK, courtesy of Storm Ciara which was speeding towards the UK. It’s speed relative to the air, or airspeed, was much less than groundspeed.

Adding 260 mph to the cruising speed would account exactly for the 825 mph maximum achieved on the flight. The BA aircraft travelled a consistent Mach 0.86 during its flight, according to Flightradar24.

Unlike track sports, where wind aided sprints are not allowed into the record books, the aviation industry has no such qualms.

The 747

British Airways operates the largest fleet of 747s of any airline.

The 747’s first flight was in 1969. If it looks more like a cargo plane than a sleek jetliner, that’s because Boeing expected the 747 to enter service as a passenger plane but eventually serve mostly as a cargo plane. Boeing expected long haul flights would all become supersonic. But as that didn’t happen the  airlines bought plenty of 747s for passengers. In the 50 years since the first flight, Boeing built 1,557 of the Jumbo Jet, a name adopted by the aviation media over Boeing’s preference for “Queen of the Air.”

The most famous 747 of all may be Air Force One, the personal plane of US presidents. Air Force One is outfitted with 4,000 square feet of passenger space and has cargo space enough for the transport of the president's limousine, AKA the Beast. When the president took to the air during 9/11 on Air Force One, the escorting F16s had trouble keeping up with it and had to ask Air Force One to slow down.


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