A roaring Pacific jet stream, supercharged by the El Niño climate pattern and moving at more than 250 mph, gave the flight a boost.
Official records for commercial flight speeds aren’t kept, but a recent article in Simple Flying said a British Air Boeing 747 flying near Greenland had set a record when it reached 825 mph in February 2020.
Other flights were also hurled by this week’s extra-swift high-altitude winds. For example, China Airlines Flight 6, flying the same route as Flight 5116 on Friday, hit 822 mph. Eva Airlines Flight 32 from Taipei to New York peaked at 821 mph.
The jet stream winds even enabled these planes to surpass the speed of sound (767 mph). China Airlines 5116, a Boeing 777, has a cruising speed of 564 mph, but the jet stream bumped it up over 800 mph — much like walking on a moving walkway adds to a pedestrian’s speed.
But the aircraft did not break the sound barrier. Even though its ground speed 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 also moving.
China Airlines 5116 flew its route of 7,205 miles in just 10 hours 18 minutes, which rounds to an average speed of 700 mph! That’s including takeoff, landing and all the slower points in the journey. (Working against the jet stream, an average westbound flight from Los Angeles to Taipei is usually scheduled for 14 hours 40 minutes.)
There were more super-fast flights Thursday and Friday. Among them:
- Philippine Airlines 112 from Manilla to Los Angeles reached 819 mph.
- Korean Air 8213 from Seoul to Los Angeles reached 819 mph.
- FedEx Cargo Flight 5986 from Hong Kong to Memphis reached 819 mph.
- Delta 276 from Tokyo to Detroit reached 817 mph.
- Delta Flight 26 from Seoul to Atlanta reached 814 mph.
- China Airlines 5382 from Taipei to Los Angeles reached 812 mph.
- China Eastern Flight 583 from Shanghai to Los Angeles reached 811 mph.
What made the jet stream so fast? Ordinarily it has crests and dips, which limit just how fast its flow can get. Picture a kinked hose — even if water is flowing through it, it slows until you stretch it straight. Then fluid flows through the hose swiftly. Same premise here.
The jet stream is usually faster in the wintertime, and the world’s fastest jet stream tends to be over the Pacific. It’s easy for the river of furious winds to roar eastward without any land masses or topography (mountains, etc.) slowing it due to friction.
In addition, jet streams are fueled by temperature contrasts. Because the tropical Pacific Ocean is warmer than normal because of the El Niño climate pattern, there is a stronger temperature difference between southern and northern reaches of the ocean in the northern hemisphere, intensifying the jet stream in between.
The same active Pacific jet stream will bring a series of storm systems to California and the Pacific Northwest. Back-to-back atmospheric rivers will deluge the region, causing heavy mountain snows and rain in the lowlands.
Planes can reach similar speeds over the North Atlantic given the right conditions. On Feb. 7, 2020, a KLM flight reached a ground speed of 819 mph over Newfoundland. It was a Boeing 747; the pilot snapped a photo of his instrument panel and reached out to The Washington Post after the flight.
Jason Samenow contributed to this report.