North Pole - Polar route - sas

What does it take to fly over the poles?

Poles are special. And enigmatic. Most areas in or around the poles are inhospitable, thus adding to the enigma. Today, we understand the poles more than ever and, therefore, can utilize their uniqueness to our benefits.

For decades, aircraft used to fly over landmasses. Then came the seas and oceans. Finally came the poles, flying through which travel times between the world’s major commercial centers in North America, Europe, and Asia decreased significantly. For example, flying from New York to Hong Kong through the North Pole cut down the distance travelled from 15000 to 13000 km.

New York to Hong Kong route comparison
Credits: Aero, no. 16, October 2001

In terms of definitions, the FAA defines the North Polar area of operations as the area lying north of 78 deg north latitude.

Pioneers of the polar routes

SAS was the first airline to operate a polar route between Los Angeles and Copenhagen (with stops in Winnipeg and Sondre Stromfjord) in 1954 using Douglas DC-6B. Canadian Pacific, TWA, PanAm, and Air France followed suit soon.

Arctic polar routes are very common these days for flying between North American and Asian cities. All major airlines of the world operate polar routes.

SAS Douglas DC-6 – The aircraft type used to fly the first commercial polar route
Credits: SAS Scandinavian Airlines

What makes polar routes special?

For airlines, polar routes mean lesser time and, thus, lesser fuel burn. Moreover, polar routes are generally not crowded, which translates to better operating efficiencies for the airline.

However, poles are regions with extremely cold temperatures, magnetic distortions, and danger of solar flares.

While there are negatives, the positives far outweigh them. But this requires managing these negatives, as we see in the next section.

Requirements to fly over the poles

Airlines are required to conform to specific requirements while operating polar routes. These requirements are listed briefly below:

Alternate airports: Airlines must define a set of alternate airports that they will approach in case of an emergency. The airports must be able to hold the aircraft in operation and provide for the crew and passenger needs.

Fuel Freeze: While passing through the poles, an important requirement is that the fuel in the aircraft should be maintained in the liquid state to ensure it is able to flow to the engines easily. Fuel freezing points are between -40° C and -50° C. Fuel temperature is displayed to the pilots in all modern aircraft. In case fuel temperature approaches its freezing point, pilots are required to either change flight path to find warmer temperatures, or change flight altitude (in polar regions, lower altitude may not necessarily mean a higher temperature).

Navigation and Communication Capability: Poles are unique. As we approach the magnetic north (or south), conventional compasses may not work the normal way. Thus, magnetic heading may not be a suitable navigation tool for polar operation. Pilots need to ensure that the computer flight plan displays true tracks and headings.

Moreover, as polar routes pass through many countries/regions, the crew needs to be wary of the communication technologies/protocols of the different regions.

Minimum Equipment List (MEL): For polar routes, the MEL includes the following:

  • A fuel-quantity-indicating system that includes temperature indication
  • For two-engine airplanes, an auxiliary power unit (APU) that includes electrical and pneumatic supply to its designed capability
  • An autothrottle system
  • Flight crew communication systems that satisfy the FAA requirement for effective communication capability
  • An expanded medical kit with automated external defibrillators

Training: Crew and dispatchers need to be trained on special items including cold-temperature altitude correction, cold fuel management, weather patterns, and use of cold-weather anti-exposure suits (a minimum of two cold-weather anti-exposure suits are kept onboard North Polar flights).

Cover credits: Wikimedia Commons

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