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Flight Paths and Great Circles – Why Are Great Circles the Shortest Flight Path?

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We’re often asked why an individual flight is flying a particular route, or put another way—“why did we fly over Greenland?”. Long distance flight paths are designed to be the most efficient way to get from point A to point B on the other side of the world. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but when a line on a globe is shown on a two-dimensional map, it looks like an arc.

The solid line is the actual flight path, the red dashed line is the Great Circle route between Chicago and Dubai

Why Are Great Circles the Shortest Flight Path?

In the example above, an Emirates flight from Chicago to Dubai looks like it’s taking a very long route to Dubai, but it’s actually the shortest distance between the two cities. Flights like this one follow what are know as Great Circle routes—the shortest distance between two points on a sphere.

A polar plot of the Chicago-Dubai Great Circle route, courtesy gcmap.com

To see the great circle route between any two airports around the world, gcmap.com is a useful tool.

But as simple as it would be for flights to just travel along a great circle path, they rarely fly in a perfectly straight line. In the early days of aerial navigation, pilots followed a system of giant arrows on the ground to reach their destination. Concrete arrows were soon supplanted by radio beacons and radar.

Currently, much of the air navigation system relies on VOR and NDB ground stations and airways. As aircraft fly, they pass over ground station waypoints, which helps air traffic control properly space aircraft. Increasingly, aviation is moving to GPS-based navigation, which improves flight efficiency as flights are able to fly more direct flight paths.

Waypoints and airways are visible in the image below, as flights from New York’s JFK Airport approach Los Angeles.

Flights follow airways and pass over waypoints en route to from New York to Los Angeles, generally following a Great Circle route

In this zoomed image, it’s possible to see the flights passing over waypoints en route to LAX.

Crossing waypoints nearing Los Angeles

Read more about aeronautical charts on Flightradar24

But what about flights over the ocean where there are no navigational aides? Aircraft follow tracks that are made up of predetermined sets of latitude and longitude coordinates across the ocean. For example, these are the North Atlantic Tracks (the same general principle applies to the Pacific Ocean as well).

Flights traveling along the North Atlantic Tracks
Flights traveling along the North Atlantic Tracks

See our 24-hour time lapse of North Atlantic flights

Flights enter and exit the track via a pair of waypoints on either side of the ocean so that all flights are properly aligned and air traffic control can estimate their position over the ocean correctly. You can even view each day’s NAT tracks with a Gold or Business subscription to see which tracks are active and how busy they are.

So the next time the moving map on your flight shows you heading north when you want to be going east, remember that you’re actually taking the shortest path to your destination. And you might even get to see the north pole.

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