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Near-record winds over the Northeast push passenger planes to speeds over 800 mph

Boosted by a powerful jet stream over the Washington, D.C., area on Saturday night, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 passenger flight arrived at London's Heathrow Airport 45 minutes ahead of schedule. A similar aircraft is seen in 2017, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Ted S. Warren
/
AP
Boosted by a powerful jet stream over the Washington, D.C., area on Saturday night, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 passenger flight arrived at London's Heathrow Airport 45 minutes ahead of schedule. A similar aircraft is seen in 2017, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Strong high-altitude winds over the Mid-Atlantic sped up sky traffic on Saturday night, getting passengers on at least two commercial planes to their destinations early, after both aircraft hit supersonic speeds topping 800 mph.

Winds at cruising altitude peaked at about 265 mph, according to the Washington, D.C., area National Weather Service office — the second-highest wind speed logged in the region since recordings began in 1948. The highest-ever wind speed recorded in the area at a similar altitude was 267 mph on Dec. 6, 2002.

"For those flying eastbound in this jet, there will be quite a tail wind," the NWS warned in a tweet.

Sure enough, that tailwind helped cut down the flight time for passengers on a Virgin Atlantic flight from D.C. to London by 45 minutes, according tothe tracker FlightAware.

The Boeing 787 reached a maximum ground speed of 802 mph, surpassing the speed of sound (767 mph). But, as The Washington Post explained, the plane didn't actually break the sound barrier.

"Although its ground speed — a measure that combines the plane's actual speed and the additional push from the wind — was greater than the speed of sound, it was still moving through the surrounding air at its ordinary cruise speed. It just so happened that the surrounding air was moving unusually fast," the Post reported.

Another 787, a United Airlines flight from Newark, N.J., to Lisbon, Portugal, that took off at 8:35 p.m. on Saturday, reached a peak ground speed of 838 mph, shaving 20 minutes off the scheduled flight time.

Just last month, a jet stream over the Pacific Ocean produced 250 mph winds that pushed a China Airlines flight to log 826 mph.

There are no official records for commercial flight speeds, the newspaper reported, but both of the latter ground speeds are among the highest known recorded. In February 2020, a British Airways Boeing 747 set a record for subsonic trans-Atlantic flight time with a reported top speed reaching 825 mph.

The powerful jet streams that drive up flight speeds are often fueled by contrasts in temperature. The Post said the combination of Saturday's cold air in the Northeast and warmer air in the Southeast whipped up high winds.

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Emma Bowman