Flights over the North Pole, also known as polar flights, while not common, are not as rare as you might think. If you want to see the North Pole without risking life and limb trekking through the ice fields of the ice cap, you are in luck! It’s not as easy as taking the bus downtown, but it can be done. So, can you fly over the North Pole, and how can you do it?
Background on Polar Flights
The first complete, continuous polar flight took place in 1937. Soviet pilot Valery Chkalov flew from Moscow in the Soviet Union over the Pole to Vancouver, Washington. The United States followed with their own flight in 1946 using a modified B-29 aircraft. Ever since then, commercial and military flights have occurred pretty regularly. The polar air space is a common route between the Western United States and Europe, or between Europe and Japan, and other similar routes. The reason polar flights are so rare is due to a few reasons: temperature, volume of travel, and logistics.
Polar Flights Are Tricky
First, airplane fuel can free at temperatures below -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Airplanes usually experience temperatures this low at normal cruising altitudes anywhere in the world. However, because the plane itself is warm and the fuel retains heat from wherever it is loaded, it doesn’t have enough time to freeze. When planes fly over the North Pole, however, the temperature drops to much lower levels. Usually, when the fuel is close to freezing, pilots will descend to warmer air to prevent this. But over the polar region, cold air can be trapped lower to the ground. This creates dangerous situations where freezing fuel can’t be warmed up.
There Aren’t Enough Travelers
Second, there isn’t a significant amount of travel between cities where a polar route would make more sense than an alternative route. There are a few places between which the polar route is the shortest path, but if enough people don’t want to fly that route, airlines will not list it as an option. If more people wanted non-stop flights between Japan and Finland, then polar flights might become more popular.
The Costs Often Outweigh the Benefits
Third, it can be more expensive or logistically complicated to fly over the pole than to simply take multiple smaller trips at lower latitudes. Flying over the pole requires special training, equipment, and a plane big enough to make the journey. Most airlines don’t want to take on that added cost and risk, so they offer multi-stage flights instead.
How Can You Fly Over the North Pole?
Unless you want to end up like Swedish engineer Salomon Andree who died after trying to fly over the North Pole in a hot air balloon, your best bet is to take a commercial flight. These flights, naturally, are not designed for sightseeing, but you can still say you flew over the North Pole. For example, you can take a flight on Emirates Airlines from Los Angeles over the North Pole to Dubai. This polar flight takes 17 hours. You can’t typically search for polar flights with most airlines. So, you will have to look for flights between North America and Asia, for example. You will have to limit your search to airlines that already offer these routes.
Military flights regularly make trips over the North Pole, and scientific expeditions sometimes hitch a ride for research. Unless you are a pilot or scientist working in the Arctic, these options probably won’t be viable. Additionally, small private planes don’t have the capability to fly over the North Pole. These small planes don’t carry enough fuel and aren’t built to survive the temperatures or weather of polar flights.
That’s it! It’s actually pretty simple to fly over the North Pole, as long you also want to travel to somewhere on the other side of the planet. If you’re lucky, you might get some clear skies above the North Pole. Let’s hope you don’t get an aisle seat!
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Erika Bisbocci/Shutterstock.com
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