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Why Can’t Planes Fly Over the North Pole (or Can They?)

We like to think that air travel has opened up the world to the extent that everywhere is accessible. Simply board a flight, and you can be there in hours. But that simply is not true, with one of the most famous limitations being the North and South Poles.

Much has been made of these regions as danger zones for planes – but are they really? It isn’t that planes can’t fly over these polar regions, it’s simply that there are technological, political, and logistical reasons preventing it. However, these limitations are being challenged, which could revolutionize air travel.

Is Flying Over The North Pole Worth It?

Before even getting into the problems with aircraft flying over the North Pole, let’s take a step back and address a larger existential question – are any potential problems even worth overcoming?

US Coast Guard Plane Flying over Polar region
Public Domain US Coast Guard Plane Flying over Polar region

After all, as alluded to above, air travel is already remarkably versatile and well-traveled today. Even with polar routes not being common, we are able to reach pretty much every other point on the planet by plane.

Clearly, we do not need polar routes to do so.

What’s more, polar routes may not even be the most efficient way to get from one point to another, which can help explain why they are notoriously uncommon. The fastest possible distance between two points is a straight line.

What kind of air traffic would benefit from “a straight line” cutting across the North or South Pole?

It isn’t as though regions immediately adjacent to this region are among the most populous on Earth. On the contrary, obviously the closer you get to extreme cold such as this, the fewer the towns and the less populous they are.

This eliminates a lot of the incentive for commercial air travel.

What’s more, the flights that do take place in the region are often military in nature. Militaries from countries such as the US and Russia have planes and crews that are outfitted for the area’s extreme cold.

Needless to say, this is not an expenditure that most commercial airliners would be willing to make. Moreover, with commercial travel around these points low, the incentive to do so is even lesser.

Furthermore, with military activity being sensitive in these regions, aircraft flying there would have to deal with the added scrutiny that comes with that.

In short, even before we get into the scientific limitations, the logistics and logic of a polar flight already work against it being a common occurrence for commercial airplanes.

Then there is the fact that the Earth’s rotation works against this kind of flight

The North Pole
Public Domain The North Pole

We do not tend to launch rockets or missiles close to the top of the Earth. This is because missiles and rockets make use of the Earth’s rotation in part to generate the lift necessary to gain trajectory.

The closer something is to the polar region, the less they are able to accomplish this.

While this is less prominent with aircraft, it is nevertheless a consideration.

The Problems with Flying Over the Poles

As we’ll quickly see, however, there are many logistical problems that can make flying over the polar regions difficult.

For one thing, the weather and cold temperatures can play havoc with the wings of a plane. Ice forming on the wings can weigh them down considerably, to say nothing of the damage that strong winds and moisture can do.

Then there is the fact that, while it may seem like a short distance on a globe, the distance covered over the polar regions are more vast than you might think.

For example, the North Pole is far from the quaint Santa-inhabited myth that lives in the imagination of children around the globe.

In reality, the North Pole stretches for 790,000 square miles, making it a vast distance to cover in cold, icy conditions.

North Pole FAA Flight Requirements

In response to this, the FAA has introduced certain requirements for flying over the North Pole.

For one thing, there must be at least two “cold weather anti-exposure suits” on the aircraft.

In addition, pilots need to undergo specific training for the routes they take and the weather patterns they are likely to face.

Adding to the problems are the fact that being so near the North Pole can interfere with navigation systems that rely on magnetism. Planes flying in the North Pole, thus, need to have equipment that can compensate for this as best as possible.

Pilots also need to be aware of and plan for these problems.

Communication Issues

Finally, there is also the fact that being so near the poles can also create problems with your ability to communicate with others via radio. 

As any pilot knows, being able to maintain constant visibility and communication are essential for safe flying. Losing either of these things is extremely dangerous. Losing both can be calamitous.

This is where the difference between impossibility and impracticality rears its head.

On the one hand, as demonstrated here, it is not “impossible” to fly near the North Pole.

On the other hand, these severe limitations can make it feel that way.

The Potential for Tragedy

Because of all these points of concern, there are sadly far too many things that can go wrong and lead to an aircraft running into danger in these polar regions. In the past, this has led to fatal crashes.

For example, trips to Antarctica once seemed like they had the potential to become another popular tourist destination. New Zealand is relatively close to the continent, and so the thinking went that short flights could take off from and land back there.

However, this did not account for all of the potential dangers listed above, and in 1979, this resulted in disaster when an airplane crashed into Mt. Erebus, the second-largest mountain in Antarctica.

All 257 passengers and crew sadly perished, and flights there have never resumed.

Cross on Mt Erebus
Archives New Zealand Cross on Mt Erebus

This is another danger factor of flying over polar regions that far too often goes unnoticed – the weather and topography.

Because we do not live there, and because it looks white and smooth on a map or globe, we tend to stereotype the polar regions as being as such. However, that is simply not the case. Some of it is mountainous, which poses extra flight challenges.

The same may be said for weather conditions. Pilots already have to contend with cold and low visibility when taking off, landing, and flying in cold weather conditions around the world.

Mt Erebus Antarctica
Public Domain Mt Erebus Antarctica

Now imagine having to account for all of those factors without the added benefit of being able to enjoy seamless contact or visibility and all of the other things that make modern aviation possible.

If anything goes wrong, there is less of an opportunity to notice and correct things. Moreover, if communication is obstructed, there is less of an opportunity to ask for help.

In short, while it is not technically impossible, many factors work to make trips to these regions potential tragedies in the making.

Potential for the Future 

For the A380 flight from Dubai to San Francisco Emirates flew directly over the North Pole
Steve Jurvetson | Flickr For the A380 flight from Dubai to San Francisco Emirates flew directly over the North Pole

Despite all those problems, however, there is potential for polar flights to be a thing of the future, and there are a few reasons why they may defy the odds yet.

For one thing, while the region is still sensitive militarily, we are nowhere near the levels of Cold War paranoia that pervaded the world and that region in particular for decades.

We no longer expect the polar regions to be one of the potential first flash points in a conflict between American and Soviet fighter jets, nor do we imagine nuclear warfare involving those areas.

Then there is the question of fuel efficiency. While it is problematic to fly over the polar regions for the reasons stated, and the routes may not always be the most lucrative, they are nevertheless the “straightest lines” in a few cases.

For example, while they may not always be the most common destinations for travel, if you are indeed looking to head to a region near the poles, traveling over them would obviously be a faster way to go.

It could also be beneficial for other routes. For example, by some estimates, a polar route may be able to shave as many as four hours off a flight from New York to Hong Kong.

These flights are already among the longest in the world, so being able to lessen the amount of time spent in the air by that much would be a huge boon.

What’s more, it could also be a huge benefit for any airline companies making that trip. Jet fuel is expensive, so anywhere airlines can cut down on it can help them save money. Even better, these savings can be passed on to passengers.

Even more important than saving money is saving the environment. We are all more environmentally conscious than before, and jet fuel pumps an inconsiderable amount of pollutants into the air.

Time will tell whether polar travel becomes more common. There are many huge challenges, but it is not technically impossible, and the economic and environmental rationale may be growing.

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