In late 2022 I joined up with Finnair’s flight AY62 from Tokyo Haneda to Helsinki – on a very unique mission. I would be tagging along with the flight crew, in the flight deck for most of the trip, in order to document what it takes to fly an A350 over the North Pole.
Most of you will know why this flight now mostly has to overfly the North Pole: Russian airspace, which previously offered the most direct path from Tokyo to Helsinki, is now closed to European carriers. But Tokyo remains an important route for Finnair, and with Japan having finally reopened to visitors there’s even more incentive to operate the flight despite the new challenges, even though it now takes hours longer and requires a wildly different route – right across the top of the globe.
The routing for our 12.5-hour flight took us out over the Pacific, through Alaskan airspace, and within about 20 nautical miles of the North Pole. This is airspace that relatively few aircraft traverse, and not many people will ever lay eyes on the very top of the planet. Never mind that it was in complete darkness – this was an absolute thrill for me.
Below is the video I made for Flightradar24’s YouTube channel from the flight. It’s become one of our most popular ever:
Did you know that Finnair are actually pioneers on the polar route? They first did it back in 1983 with the DC-10, connecting Helsinki with Tokyo just like today.
So-called polar routes go back to the mid-1950s. SAS famously pioneered them, but initially these weren’t truly polar – rather they were great circle routes between Los Angeles and Copenhagen with stops in Canada and Greenland. Later SAS also added Tokyo service via Anchorage, as did Air France and KLM. Air France had the distinction of being the first to operate jets over the Pole with its 707 service to Tokyo via Anchorage. But it was Finnair that was the first to operate the polar route to Tokyo from Europe nonstop, in 1983 using the DC-10-30ER.
Back in those days the challenges of transpolar operations were relatively new, while these days there’s plenty of experience built up industry-wide. That plus modern aircraft reliability means these polar routes are relatively routine. That being said, there are some special considerations that go into such a flight, especially these days.
A very odd routing
Our initial routing on AY62 was further east over the Pacific than usual because of Russian military exercises happening off their east coast. It’s always the policy to give anything like that a wide berth. And shortly after departure, we ran into some weather. Here the A350 was a great asset because it’s able to climb to a higher initial flight level than other aircraft. We started off at 35,000 feet and would soon climb to 37,000 feet while many previous generation aircraft like the 777 were stuck thousands of feet lower and in rougher air.
The reason aircraft can’t always climb to their maximum cruise altitude initially is because at higher weights (fully loaded with fuel for long flights) they are restricted to a significantly lower level and can only climb higher after they’ve burned some off. The A350 can climb as high as 43,000 feet but as we took off at maximum weight we couldn’t go any higher than 37,000 until quite a bit later on in the flight.
It’s a very strange feeling to fly over Alaska enroute from Japan to Europe – but that’s exactly what we did in this case.
Polar flight challenges
Completing the polar crossing on the ultra-modern and capable A350 renders some of the Polar complexities much easier to deal with. Although magnetic headings become useless at the poles, where north becomes south in an instant, the navigation systems take this all in stride. Cold air masses up this way can also be an issue for some aircraft, because the fuel needs to be kept above a certain temperature for everything to run smoothly. That can mean needing to change altitudes to find warmer air – but on the A350 this is rarely an issue, as it keeps the temperatures in an optimal range even when passing through very cold air.
The A350 also has ETOPS300, meaning it’s certified to fly up to 300 minutes away from the nearest diversion airport flying with one engine out. That meant we could take the most direct routing over the Pole and not have to fly longer to stay closer to civilization.
The text-message based system used on this flight is known as CPDLC, and it’s very handy for doing things like requesting flight level changes and so on. Nearer to the pole though the crew still had to call in position reports on the old High Frequency radio complete with heavy static, just like the good old days. And we lost all satellite connection up this way because satellites, which mostly orbit around the equator, don’t have coverage at the poles. So in some ways, this was exactly the same as it would have been 40 or more years ago.
This flight uses four pilots, who rotate in and out throughout the flight so that everyone can get some rest.
Near the pole we were still in airspace controlled out of Anchorage. We’ll pass through a small piece of Edmonton control, and then it’ll be Iceland control after that.
The North Pole is indicated on the navigation display with the waypoint NOPOL. Though it wasn’t really possible to see much except the stars above. The tricky thing with North Pole crossings at night is that with so much flat white expanse below it can be difficult to even tell whether you’re seeing ice or cloud. But nevertheless, it felt incredibly special to be looking down at the very tip-top of the planet.
There are now some satellites whose orbits allow for coverage at the poles – but there aren’t many of them plus the bandwidth is low and data expensive, meaning we don’t take advantage of them. Maybe in the future there will be true global coverage, but not yet.
Onward to Svalbard
After crossing the North Pole it felt remarkably quick to reach Svalbard and then the Norwegian coast. After hours of being at least a thousand miles from anywhere, seeing all the airports marked in purple on the navigation display was a welcome sign that we were approaching civilization once again. The North Pole is amazing and all, but it also feels far away and lonely. I can only imagine what it would be like to go there on foot.
A remarkable, yet routine, experience
We had calm weather and a very leisurely early morning approach to Helsinki to complete this flight. Certainly one of my most incredible experiences. It’s remarkable to think this flight happens daily. It’s routine.
It’s unfortunate for everyone to have to spend the extra time and money, and burn the extra fuel, to go around Russia on this route. But Finnair is in the best possible position if they do have to do this for the foreseeable future. They’ve got the most capable and modern aircraft for the job, with the fuel efficiency to maximize sustainability and cost savings given the situation. And they’ve got the experience and know-how to do this on a daily basis with maximum safety and reliability. I got my northern route diploma signed by all four pilots. Finnair hands these out to passengers too and I thing that’s a great way to acknowledge a special flight like this. You could say flying over the north pole is no big deal these days operationally speaking, but the fact that it’s no big deal is incredible in itself – a testament to how far aircraft engineering and the aviation industry has come over the years.