With Jet Stream's Help, Virgin Flight Breaks Speed Record

virgin airlines

(Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — A Virgin Atlantic commercial flight from Los Angeles to London broke record ground speeds earlier this week when it zoomed over Central Pennsylvania at nearly 801 mph — all thanks to a massive wind boost.

The aircraft, a Boeing 787, arrived in London 48 minutes earlier than scheduled.

Typically, the cruising speed for a 787 is around 567 mph.

"[N]ever ever seen this kind of tailwind in my life as a commercial pilot," tweeted Peter James.

While 801 mph is faster than the speed of sound (which is 767 mph), the 787 did not break the sound barrier.

“Whether air travel breaks the sound barrier is dependent on its airspeed — not its ground speed,” the Washington Post explained.

That's because ground speed is the speed an airplane has relative to a point on the ground. It can be visualized as how quickly the plane’s shadow moves across the surface. Airspeed, on the other hand is the difference between ground speed and the wind speed.

Therefore, an airspeed exceeding the speed of sound was not reached.

“No, they didn’t break the sound barrier but they were making good time across the ground, and it’s not the highest ground speed ever recorded in a jet core,” said Thomas Horne, Editor-at-Large with Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Pilot Magazine.

According to Horne, that record belongs to the Concorde, a supersonic aircraft that stopped flying in 2003 after safety and economic reasons.

Its top ground speed was 1,205 knots – almost 1,300 mph, Horne said.

Horne also noted that achieving such high speeds only happens when planes are traveling from west to east using the jet stream to their advantage.

“It’s very well tracked and the airlines use this to their advantage all the time,” Horne said.

According to Mike Colbert, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in State College, PA, where the Virgin Airline flight reached the high speeds, the jet stream is a narrow moving area separating warmer and colder regions of the country during the winter.

Think of it as an imaginary snake-like boundary.

Often times these low temperatures will play a big factor in the jet stream, Colbert said.

“If you’re going east, you’re going to get that boost from the jet stream hopefully. Airlines plan to get in or near the jet stream to take advantage of this for the tail winds,” Horne said.

Since the wind is blowing with them, Horne says that’s they were making good time across the ground.

So, if you’re flying out from Boston out East to Europe this winter, you may get a boost getting where you need to be sooner. But if you’re heading west, you may get a few minutes added on to your flight.

Do Pilots or Passengers Feel The Difference and Is There Any Danger?

Horne says that when an airplane is within that stream it feels the same, but when pilots look at their ground speed on their instrument panel, “you would notice it then.”

Pilots and those who plan flight routes are experienced in taking advantage of the jet stream – it’s often used to make flights more economical.

The Virgin Atlantic flight did not maintain the high speed for very long. Its ground speed eventually slowed down to around 700 mph once it reached the Atlantic Ocean.

WBZ NewsRadio's Josh Binswanger (@JoshWBZ) reports.

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