1135885074

1135885074

3D illustration of a commercial Aircraft

Photo by: Aaron Foster

Aaron Foster

If the Earth Spins East, Why Isn't It Faster to Fly West?

By: Joanie Faletto

There are a few elements that prevent this theory from working.

August 01, 2019

Any fourth grader can tell you that the Earth is rotating. What a fourth grader probably can't tell you is why flying in the opposite direction that the Earth spins doesn't make for a faster plane trip. Heck, a college grad may not even know how to explain that one.

Photo by: Curiosity.com

Curiosity.com

Westworld

Let's break this down to really picture the scenario. You've got one Earth, which is rotating eastward. And you've got one airplane, flying just above the Earth's surface going westward. Put the two together, and the plane's destination would then, logically, be moving toward the plane as the Earth rotates. Ta-da! The result should be a super short flight from Chicago to San Francisco, with a little longer travel time on the return flight. Right? Well, no. That supposedly quick trip is complicated for a few reasons.

First, as the Earth itself rotates, it takes the air with it (thanks, gravity!). That includes the air through which planes fly. At the equator, the Earth spins about twice as fast as a commercial jet can fly. That rate slows the closer you get to the poles, but regardless, it's always going to be faster than a plane. Since it can't match the Earth's rotational speed, a westward plane technically travels east — just like the entire planet beneath it. It just has engines that help it travel east a little more slowly than everything else, making it move west relative to the ground.

Jet Setter

Secondly, we've got jet streams yet to talk about. Jet streams are tunnel-like air currents in the atmosphere where hot and cold air meet and could either work with or against your plane. The rotation of the Earth pushes these winds into swirling patterns — the same type of action that takes place for hurricanes. In the Northern Hemisphere, the jet stream flows toward the east, giving a boost to eastward flights and working against westward flights. The speed of jet streams ranges from 80 to 140 miles per hour (130 to 225 kilometers per hour), and flying in one can save the airline time, fuel, and, duh, money. If you want to really take advantage of jet stream travel, fly from the west to east in the winter. That's when the difference between hot and cold air is most dramatic, making the jet stream even faster.

This article first appeared on Curiosity.com.

Next Up

What Would Happen If the Sun Disappeared?

You might be able to survive for a bit longer than you think.

What Would Happen If You Stopped Time?

There never seems to be enough hours in a day.

What Would Happen If You Stayed Awake for 11 Days?

It's pretty dangerous to stay awake for days and weeks on end.

If the Universe Is Expanding, What Is It Expanding Into?

There's a short answer and a long answer to this mysterious question.

If The Earth's Core Is So Hot, Why Doesn't It Melt?

The Earth's core same temperature as the surface of the sun.

What If Dark Matter Doesn't Exist and the Law of Gravity Is Wrong?

Dark matter and gravity have scientists at odds.

Check Out the Crab Nebula –The Leftovers from a Giant Cosmic Firework

The Crab Nebula sits 6,500 light-years away, and is currently about 11 light-years across. But while it looks pretty from afar, don’t give in to the temptation to visit it up close.

Get Celestial with Lowell Observatory LIVE!

Our friends at Lowell Observatory are serving up our solar system on a platter live!

Farewell, Earth’s Mini-moon

It's time to say goodbye to the mini-moon that's no bigger than your car.

What are the Chances of Life Appearing On…Earth?

Just how lucky are we on Earth? What were the chances that life would arise, let alone lead to intelligence?