Polar route

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General arrangement of polar routes in the late 20th century (left) and in the 2000s (center) and in the Southern Hemisphere (right).

A polar route is an aircraft route across the uninhabited polar ice cap regions. The term "polar route" was originally applied to great circle routes between Europe and the west coast of North America in the 1950s.[1]

The Arctic[edit]


The Soviet pilot Valery Chkalov was the first to fly non-stop from Europe to the American Pacific Coast. His flight from Moscow, Soviet Union to Vancouver, Washington, United States, via the North Pole on a Tupolev ANT-25 single-engine plane (June 18–20, 1937) took 63 hours to complete. The distance covered was 8,811 kilometres (5,475 mi).[citation needed]

In September 1945, a long-distance flight was undertaken for public relations purposes: generals Barney M. Giles, Curtis LeMay and Emmett O'Donnell, Jr. piloted three specially modified B-29s from Chitose Air Base in Hokkaidō to Chicago Municipal Airport, continuing to Washington, D.C., the farthest nonstop distance to that date flown by U.S. Army Air Forces aircraft and the first-ever nonstop flight from Japan to the U.S.. The distance covered was approximately 5,839 miles or 9,397 kilometers.[2][3] Two months later, Colonel Clarence S. Irvine commanded another modified B-29, Pacusan Dreamboat, in a world-record-breaking long-distance flight from Guam to Washington, D.C., traveling 7,916 miles (12,740 km) in 35 hours,[4] with a gross takeoff weight of 155,000 pounds (70,000 kg).[5] Almost a year later, in October 1946, the same B-29 flew 9,422 miles nonstop from Oahu, Hawaii, to Cairo, Egypt, in less than 40 hours, further proving the capability of routing airlines over the polar icecap.[6]

Of the commercial airlines, SAS was first: their DC-6B flights between Los Angeles and Copenhagen, via Sondre Stromfjord and Winnipeg, started on November 15, 1954.[7] Canadian Pacific DC-6Bs started VancouverAmsterdam in 1955, then Pan Am and TWA started West Coast to Paris/London in 1957. SAS was first again, flying Europe to Tokyo via Anchorage with DC-7Cs in February 1957; Air France L1649s and KLM DC-7Cs followed in 1958.[citation needed]

During much of the Cold War the Arctic region was a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and North America; civilian flights from Europe to the Asian Far East were unable to cross the Soviet Union or China and had to use a Middle East route or connect through Alaska across the Arctic region. These Cold War tracks extended from the northern Alaskan coast across Greenland to Europe. Korean Air Lines Flight 902 was shot down in the USSR in 1978 after the crew made gross navigational errors attempting to fly the assigned polar route.

The main obstacle to flights across Russia was the inadequate Russian air traffic control system and a lack of English communication. To solve these issues RACGAT (Russian-American Coordinating Group for Air Traffic) was formed in 1993. By summer 1998 the Russian government gave permission to open four cross-polar routes, named Polar 1, 2, 3 and 4.[8]

Finnair was the first airline to fly non-stop over the North Pole between Western Europe and Japan. This service began in 1983.[9]

Cathay Pacific Flight 889 from New York John F. Kennedy International Airport, piloted by Captain Paul Horsting, on 7 July 1998, the first arrival to the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok west of Hong Kong, appears to be the first non-stop flight over the Arctic polar region and over Russian airspace. It was the world's first nonstop transpolar flight from New York to Hong Kong, dubbed Polar One. It took 16 hours to complete, and it was and still is the longest flight Cathay Pacific operates.[10]


The American Federal Aviation Administration now defines the North Polar area of operations as the area north of 78 deg north latitude,[11] which is north of Alaska and most of Siberia.

Aircraft like the Boeing 747-400 and the Airbus A340, with ranges of around 7,000 nautical miles (13,000 km), were also needed to cover the distances between suitable airports.[12] Before this era, all flights from North America to Asia were routed around the Communist bloc using a series of tracks between Alaska and Japan.

Arctic polar routes are now common on airlines connecting Asian cities (Bangkok, Beijing, Dubai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, New Delhi, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo) to North American cities (New York, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington, D.C.). Emirates flies nonstop from Dubai to the US West Coast (San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles), coming within a few degrees of latitude of the North Pole.[13] [14]

List of current flight routes operating in the Arctic (within about 10° of the North Pole according to the great circle path):[15][16][17][18][19]

Closest Distance
to North Pole (km)
Closest Point to
North Pole (km)
Flight # Aircraft Frequency Flight
Length (km)
DXB SEA 165 88°31'04"N 33°56'04"W EK 229 Boeing 777-300ER Daily 11949 14:25
SEA DXB 165 88°31'04"N 33°56'04"W EK 230 Boeing 777-300ER Daily 11949 14:30
DXB SFO 202 88°11'29"N 33°46'48"W EK 225 Airbus A380 Daily 13041 16:00
SFO DXB 202 88°11'29"N 33°46'48"W EK 226 Airbus A380 Daily 13041 15:55
SFO AUH 269 87°35'17"N 34°14'15"W EY 182 Boeing 777-300 Daily 13129 16:10
AUH SFO 269 87°35'17"N 34°14'15"W EY 183 Boeing 777-300 Daily 13129 16:15
DXB LAX 601 84°36'43"N 32°04'44"W EK 215 Airbus A380 Daily 13420 16:15
LAX DXB 601 84°36'43"N 32°04'44"W EK 216 Airbus A380 Daily 13420 16:00
PEK JFK 666 84°02'04"N 201°23'51"E CA 981 Boeing 747 Daily 11024 13:30
JFK PEK 666 84°02'04"N 201°23'51"E CA 982 Boeing 747 Daily 11024 13:30
PEK JFK 666 84°02'04"N 201°23'51"E CA 989 Boeing 777-300 MoWeFrSaSu 11024 13:30
JFK PEK 666 84°02'04"N 201°23'51"E CA 990 Boeing 777-300 WeFrSu 11024 13:50
LAX AUH 680 83°54'32"N 32°31'55"W EY 170 777-200LR Daily 13502 16:35
AUH LAX 680 83°54'32"N 32°31'55"W EY 171 777-200LR Daily 13502 16:35
FRA ANC 785 82°57'45"N 72°59'11"W DE 2066 Boeing 767-300 TuThSaSu (May-Oct) 7527 9:40
ANC FRA 785 82°57'45"N 72°59'11"W DE 2067 Boeing 767-300 TuThSaSu (May-Oct) 7527 9:45
IAD PEK 902 81°54'56"N 199°35'12"E UA 807 Boeing 777-300 Daily 11172 14:15
PEK IAD 902 81°54'56"N 199°35'12"E UA 808 Boeing 777-300 Daily 11172 13:40
PEK IAD 902 81°54'56"N 199°35'12"E CA 817 Boeing 777-300 TuThSa 11172 13:50
IAD PEK 902 81°54'56"N 199°35'12"E CA 818 Boeing 777-300 TuThSa 11172 13:40
ORD DEL 1136 79°48'55"N 7°15'47"W AI 126 Boeing 777-300ER Daily 12044 14:25
DEL ORD 1136 79°48'55"N 7°15'47"W AI 127 Boeing 777-300ER Daily 12044 16:00
ICN JFK 1356 77°50'36"N 206°56'18"E KE 81/85 Airbus A380 Daily 11114 14:15
JFK ICN 1356 77°50'36"N 206°56'18"E KE 182/86 Airbus A380 Daily 11114 14:20
ICN JFK 1356 77°50'36"N 206°56'18"E OZ 222 Boeing 777-200ER Daily 11114 14:00
JFK ICN 1356 77°50'36"N 206°56'18"E OZ 221 Boeing 777-200ER Daily 11114 14:10


Few airlines fly between cities having a great circle route over Antarctica. Direct flights between South Africa and New Zealand would overfly Antarctica, but no airline has scheduled such flights. LAN Airlines flies nonstop between Auckland, Sydney and Santiago and Qantas flies nonstop between Sydney and Santiago, the most southerly polar route. Depending on winds, these reach 55 degrees south latitude, but other times 71 degrees, which is enough to cross the polar ice cap.[20][better source needed]

Depending on the winds, the Qantas flight QF 63 from Sydney to Johannesburg sometimes flies over the Antarctic Circle to latitude 71 degrees as well and allowing views of the icecap.[21]

List of current flight routes operating in the Antarctic region (within about 30° of the South Pole according to the great circle path):[15][22]

Closest Distance
to South Pole (km)
Closest Point to
South Pole (km)
Flight # Aircraft Frequency Flight
Length (km)
SYD SCL 3141 61°49'49"S 220°01'48"E QF 27 Boeing 747-400 Mo,We,Fr,Sa 11363 12:40
SCL SYD 3141 61°49'49"S 220°01'48"E QF 28 Boeing 747-400 Mo,We,Fr,Sa 11363 14:15
AKL SCL 4167 52°37'15"S 229°37'07"E LA 800 Boeing 787-800 Daily 9674 12:40
SCL AKL 4167 52°37'15"S 229°37'07"E LA 801 Boeing 787-800 Daily 9674 13:10
SYD JNB 4368 50°48'50"S 94°28'23"E QF 63 Boeing 747-400 Daily 11044 14:20
JNB SYD 4368 50°48'50"S 94°28'23"E QF 64 Boeing 747-400 Daily 11044 11:50

Operational considerations[edit]

The FAA's policy letter Guidance for Polar Operations (March 5, 2001) outlines a number of special requirements for polar flight, which includes two cold-weather suits, special communication capability, designation of arctic diversion airports and firm recovery plans for stranded passengers, and fuel freeze strategy and monitoring requirements.[23]

Jet fuel freeze temperatures range between -40 and -50 °C. These temperatures are frequently encountered at cruise altitude throughout the world with no effect since the fuel retains heat from lower elevations, but the intense cold and extended duration of polar flights may cause fuel temperature to approach its freezing point. Modern long-distance airliners are equipped to alert flight crew when fuel temperatures reach these levels. The crew must then change altitude, though in some cases due to the low stratosphere over polar regions and its inversion properties the air may actually be somewhat warmer at higher altitudes.[citation needed]


  1. ^ For instance, Aviation Week 22 July 1957 p47 reports on "polar routes" from California to Europe granted to Pan Am and TWA.
  2. ^ "How Far Is It?" Findlocalweather.com. Retrieved: 8 June 2009.
  3. ^ Potts, J. Ivan, Jr. "Chapter: The Japan to Washington Flight." Remembrance of War: The Experiences of a B-29 Pilot in World War II. Shelbyville, Tennessee: J.I. Potts & Associates, 1995. Retrieved: 8 June 2009.
  4. ^ "Monday, January 01, 1940 – Saturday, December 31, 1949." History Milestones ( US Air Force). Retrieved: 21 October 2010.
  5. ^ Mayo, Weyland. "B-29s Set Speed, Altitude, Distance Records." b-29s-over-korea.com. Retrieved: 21 October 2010.
  6. ^ "Inside The Dreamboat." Popular Science, December 1946 interview with crew about planning for flight.
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ Over the Top: Flying the Polar Routes. Avionics Magazine, April 1, 2002. Retrieved 3-07-12. [2]
  9. ^ Huhtanen, Ann-Mari (7 September 2014). "Perhana, se tulee suoraan kohti. Jouluna 1987 Finnairin lento AY 915 oli matkalla Tokiosta Helsinkiin, kun Huippuvuorten kohdalla konetta lähestyi ohjus" [‘Damn it, it’s coming straight at us. At Christmas, 1987, Finnair flight AY 915 was en route from Tokio to Helsinki, when a missile approached it over Svalbard’]. Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish) (Sanoma): C 6–8. Retrieved 2014-09-21. 
  10. ^ "Cathay Pacific's non-stop New York flight 'strengthens Hong Kong's hub'" (Press release). Cathay Pacific. 11 June 2004. Retrieved 5 July 2009. 
  11. ^ Polar Route Operations, Aero, 16, Boeing
  12. ^ Study Finds Air Route Over North Pole Feasible for Flights to Asia, Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, 10-22-2000. Article retrieved 03-12-09. [3]
  13. ^ "Flightaware website". 
  14. ^ "Schedule search". Air India. Air India Ltd. Retrieved 12 April 2015. 
  15. ^ a b Karl L. Swartz (2015). Great Circle Mapper (HTML) http://www.gcmap.com/. Retrieved 12 April 2015.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  16. ^ "Ethihad Timetable". Ethihad Airways. Retrieved 12 April 2015. 
  17. ^ "Emirates Timetable". Emirates Airlines. Emirates Airlines. Retrieved 12 April 2015. 
  18. ^ "Flight Schedule". Air China. Air China. 
  19. ^ "Timetable". United Airlines. United Airlines. Retrieved 12 April 2015. 
  20. ^ "Flightaware website". 
  21. ^ "gotravelyourway". 
  22. ^ "Timetable". Qantas. Retrieved 24 April 2015. 
  23. ^ Polar Route Operations, Aero, 16, Boeing

External links[edit]