Planes And The Pacific: Do They Really Fly Over It?

If you have ever tried to look at flight routes from Asia to America or vice versa, you might have been surprised to find that most transpacific flights do not have a straight route. Rather, they curve around the Pacific, taking the seemingly longer way to get to where they’re supposed to go. But are planes really avoiding the Pacific Ocean?

Most planes don’t fly over the Pacific Ocean. Because the Earth is round, a curved course around the Pacific Ocean reduces travel time and saves fuel. However, some routes fly over the Pacific Ocean.

In this article, I discuss why most planes avoid flying over the Pacific, why planes fly in a curved path, and more. If you want to know more about planes and the largest ocean, read on!

Why Do Planes Not Fly Directly Over the Pacific Ocean?

Planes sometimes fly over the Pacific, such as in a few flights from Australia to New Zealand. However, most commercial planes take a curved path around the Pacific instead of flying over it because, given the spherical nature of the Earth, it takes much less time and fuel to do so.

Looking at routes that don’t simply shoot straight across this body of water could look like nothing but a dalliance. But in reality, it’s the most reasonable thing to do once you remember that the Earth is round.

One other destination that usually requires planes to fly over the Pacific is Hawaii. In fact, flights to Hawaii are the longest over-water flights in the world and can take at least three hours of flight time over the vast Pacific. Military and rescue planes also do fly over the Pacific, as they are built to carry enough fuel and navigate the area when necessary.

The vastness of the Pacific Ocean, however, is usually concerning for aviators and airlines, not only because flying over it requires lots and lots of fuel, but also because weather conditions in this area can be very erratic and dangerous.

Let’s delve deeper into these reasons.

To Save on Fuel

We have long learned that the Earth is not flat. The spherical shape of the Earth affects air travel too. It means that the shortest way to go from one point to another is through a curved line and not a straight one. 

Flying over the vast Pacific requires planes to carry lots of fuel. They won’t be able to stop mid-flight and re-fuel when flying over this huge body of water. Not all transpacific flights take this long, but there are some that take up as much as 12 hours of flight time. A flight that long needs plenty of fuel.

For Safer Emergency Landings

Planes also prefer to take the curved path around the Pacific Ocean instead of over it in order to make sure that in case they will need to make an emergency landing, they will be able to do so more safely. The vast and deep Pacific Ocean is not your ideal landing area—not even for an emergency water landing.

The turbulent waters of the Pacific, combined with erratic weather conditions, make landing in this area very dangerous. Moreover, conducting search and rescue operations once a plane goes into the Pacific can be tremendously difficult.

No pilot would want an emergency landing anywhere, but if it should happen, chances are much better for passenger safety when it’s done on land.

For Shorter Travel Time

Planes usually take a curved route to keep travel time short. This means that airline companies can accommodate more flights and keep plane fares low. It’s the same logic behind making airplane seats small—they can fit more paying passengers. Check this article to learn all about that.

Flying in straight arrows only makes sense in some map projections that stretch out the earth the closer it is to the poles. In reality, the opposite is true. The closer you are to the poles, the smaller the diameter of that cross-section of the Earth.

Here’s me flying over the Atlantic Ocean with Virgin Atlantic

To Avoid Storms and Jet Streams

Storms are less likely to occur on land, and even when they do, they cause much less turbulence or disturbance to a plane in the air. In the Pacific, however, thunderstorms are a common occurrence, which means it’s a risky path to take. 

Aside from thunderstorms, jet streams are also commonly observed in this area. Flying against a jet stream or a strong air current can cause many problems, and the Pacific is notorious for jet streams that can cause strong turbulence and even damage a plane.

Why Do Planes Fly in a Curved Pattern?

Planes fly in a curved pattern because the Earth is round, and the distance between point A to point B in a sphere is shorter when following a curved line. The diameter of the Earth gets smaller the closer it is to the poles.

If you don’t take the Earth being a sphere into consideration, you would think that flying across the Pacific in a straight line would be faster. This is also why if you look at a flight path going around the Pacific on a flat map, it will look like a much longer, more time-consuming route.

But, as we’ve already established, this is an illusion established by projections of the Earth into flat maps.

Is There a Lot of Turbulence Flying Over the Pacific?

There can be a lot of turbulence flying over the pacific. The Pacific is known to have erratic and unpredictable weather conditions, as well as thunderstorms and jet streams. All these factors together make flying over the Pacific very turbulent.

In some cases, the turbulence can even be dangerous, causing damage to an aircraft and affecting its flight.

For this reason, most commercial flights from Asia to the U.S. or Australia avoid flying straight over the Pacific.

How Long Does It Take To Fly Across the Pacific Ocean?

Flying over the Pacific can take anywhere from 5 to 12 hours, particularly routes across the Pacific to Australia. Because of the long travel time and heavier fuel consumption, most commercial flights avoid this route and fly over Canada and Alaska instead.

Conclusion

On a flat surface, taking a curved path is a longer, more time-consuming route. But this is not the case in a spherical surface like the Earth, especially in air travel. Not only is going on a curved route shorter, but it’s also safer and less costly.