That was the view to the south from 31,000 feet above the center of Greenland a few hours ago: a late afternoon aurora over a blue dusk. According to my little hand-held GPS, we were around here: “11/10/17, 11:48:32 AM” “2.4 mi” “0:00:16” “538 mph” “30072 ft” “283° true” “N70° 56′ 10.4″ W38° 52′ 59.1″”. That’s about four degrees north of the arctic circle.
The flight was Air New Zealand 1, a Boeing 777 now on its way to Auckland from Los Angeles, where I got off before driving home to Santa Barbara, where I am now, absolutely fucking amazed that we take this time- and space-saving grace of civilized life—flying—so fully for granted. (I know this isn’t a good time to source Louis C.K., but his take on how “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” contains simply the best take on commercial flying ever uttered by anybody.)
Here’s another amazing thing: we were also inside the auroral oval, which at the moment maps like this—
Normally on transatlantic flights between Europe and the U.S., one looks north at the aurora, but in this case I was looking south, because we veered north to avoid headwinds on the direct route, which would have taken us over the southern end of Greenland, right under that aurora. The whole flight was close to 12 hours, went in a large crescent loop, and at the end had us coming down at Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast, roughly from the direction of Seattle:
(The map is via FlightAware. Details from that same page: Actual: 5,859 mi; Planned: 5,821 mi; Direct: 5,449 mi. In other words, we flew 410 extra miles to avoid the headwinds. Here is the route in aviation code: YNY KS21G KS81E KS72E 4108N/12141W HYP AVE.)
Get this: I knew that would roughly be our path just by first looking at Windy.com, which shows winds at all elevations a plane might fly. (That link is to Windy’s current air flow map between London and Los Angeles at 34,000 feet.)
Even after flying millions of miles as a passenger, my mind is never less blown by what one can see out the window of a plane.
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