My aeroplane conundrum
A good while back, I had an interesting discussion with my dad. (I’ve had interesting discussions with him since. But they are not the subject of this post.)
I wondered why it is not significantly quicker to fly from London to New York than it is to fly from New York to London. He thought I was an idiot. (He may still think I’m an idiot. But that is not the subject of this post.)
My rationale was this. After take-off from Heathrow, the plane is, by definition, airborne. It is not in contact with the ground. Yet Earth is spinning beneath you, something that will be yet more apparent from Virgin’s new glass-bottomed plane. And it’s spinning from west to east.
Above LHR, Earth is rotating beneath you at a rate of 1,037 km/h, and 1,263 km/h above JFK. (That’s 790 mph to you New Yorkers.)
So let’s take the average of these two: 1,150 km/h. In an hour of westbound flight across the Atlantic, you will fly approximately 880 km (the rough speed of a commercial jet), but cover 2,030 km because of that spinning Earth. So you should be there in 2h 45m. Allowing for the time difference, you’ll arrive 2h 15m earlier than you set off. Like Phil Collins, but without Concorde.
Eastbound, your progress will be hampered as the earth spins in the same direction as the plane travels, and the journey back to London will take a staggering 20h 39m. More than a day wasted, once you’ve factored in the time difference. (The Gulf Stream will help a little, I guess.)
Why is it not so? Is it simply because the air is moving too? Or is something more complex—or indeed more simple—at play?
(I read recently that the reason for which a bumblebee doesn’t slam to the back of a plane/car is as yet unexplained by science. I have no idea whether that’s true. But maybe the same force is at play here.)