Notes from 37,000 Feet


It’s an 11.5 hour flight from San Francisco, California to Tokyo, Japan. Technically, it’s a day long flight, since you cross the International Date Line and arrive a full day later than you started. Here are some notes from WC’s flight.

WC left Boise, Idaho. That town is located on the Boise River, which flows into the Snake River, then the Columbia River, and then the Pacific Ocean. WC’s final destination was Bangkok, Thailand, located on the delta of the Chao Phraya River, which flows into the Gulf of Thailand, which is part of the Pacific Ocean. More than 18 hours of flying at something like 550 mph, and still the same ocean.

It took Ferdinand Magellan two years – and his life – to cross the Pacific. WC did it in less than a day.

At a latitude of about 37° North, flying nearly due west at about 550 miles per hour, the sun moves across the sky much more slowly than it does normally. The disjunct between clock time and solar time is a little unnerving. 3:00 in the afternoon seemed to last about three hours, if you judged it by the sun’s progress across the sky. Yet except when the cloud tops are very high, there’s no sensation of speed. Mostly, you seem to just be hanging over endless, featureless ocean.

The Pacific Ocean is getting smaller. It’s being subducted at two or three places across it’s width, including under the Pacific Northwestern corner of North America. It nets out to approximately an inch a year. The trip across the Pacific is about six feet shorter than when WC was born. About 42 feet narrower than when Magelllan proved the world was round.

The flight from San Francisco to Tokyo was mostly smooth. There was occasional mild turbulence, but nothing to even spill the coffee from your mug. Each time, the pilot changed elevation by a thousand feet or so, and the ride was smooth again. When you consider the Great Circle route was across the North Pacific, the Mother of Storms, at one point within a few hundred miles of the Aleutian Islands, that’s pretty remarkable. Most of the weather and precipitation in the Western half of the United States is generated in the North Pacific. You wouldn’t know it as 37,000 feet.

The Pacific Ocean covers some 60 million square miles, more than twice the size of the runner-up, the Atlantic. And today you can fly across it, non-stop, in less than half a day. An age of miracles and wonders.