Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Philip Bump: How to celebrate New Year’s in every time zone

The Washington Post
By Philip Bump
December 31 at 7:30 AM  


There is a very easy way to celebrate the strike of midnight on New Year's Eve in every time zone over a 24 hour period: Grab a bottle of whiskey, a heavy down coat, and catch a flight to Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole.

As it turns out, orbiting a pole* is basically the only way to toast the New Year in every time zone. The further you get from a pole, the longer it takes to get from time zone to time zone, for the simple reason that the vertical lines that delineate time zones converge at the top and bottom of the world. This map uses lines of longitude, but it's the same idea. The further down you go, the farther you need to travel to cross a line.

Which raises an interesting question: Assuming one doesn't live at the South Pole, how many time zones could you practically celebrate New Year's in, if you had a fast enough car or plane? Is it possible to celebrate New Year's with a drink in all 24 time zones and in a more temperate climate?

If you want to do it by car, the first question is pretty easy to answer. The most time zones you can hit is almost certainly three. At several points on the planet -- such as where Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan meet -- three time zones converge on a single point. Drive around that point at midnight, and you can ring in 2015 three times. Or, if you'd rather not risk a drone strike, head to Central Russia. You have two hours to cover 1.5 miles from Sakha Republic to Krasnoyarsk Krai and hit three time zones.

Figuring out the maximum number of time zones you could visit to celebrate the strike of midnight by plane is significantly trickier.

There are two questions that need to be answered. First: What's the fastest jet that can fly the furthest? And, second: Where can it take off and land in each time zone?

I reached out to U.K.-based charter aircraft company Private Fly to try and figure out what aircraft might offer the best balance between speed and range.

"There are two close rivals for the fastest civilian jet in the world: "the Cessna Citation X and the Gulfstream G650," the company's Viv Diprose said by e-mail. The Cessna is slightly faster, but the Gulfstream can travel twice as far, up to 7,500 nautical miles in an extended range model. Range is important largely because we're talking about hopping hundreds of miles in the space of an hour -- meaning that the less frequently we need to refuel, the better. Diprose said that a well-planned refueling stop can take 13 minutes, which only leaves 47 minutes to take off, hit top speed, and land.

But another comment from Diprose indicates why this will be difficult. "In 2013," she said, "the G650 set the world record for circling the globe westbound in 41 hours and 7 minutes." It doesn't take a mathematician to understand that circling the globe in 41 hours is not quite enough to celebrate midnight in 24 different time zones.

What we need, then, is a faster plane that can take off and land quickly and can reduce refueling time. Say, by refueling in mid-air.

Meet the F-22 Raptor.

Jeremy Newton is an Air Force veteran who flew F-18s, but, when contacted by e-mail, suggested the F-22 for a variety of reasons. First, it can fly at 1.5 Mach (about 1,000 mph) without using its afterburner, meaning it burns much less fuel. It tops out at 2 Mach, though that burns more fuel. Second, it can refuel in 10 minutes -- in mid-air while traveling at 400 mph. And third, as the video shows, it can go from full speed to full stop in under four minutes, and to top speed at 30,000 feet in under 5 minutes.

This is a military jet, of course, so it's probably not within your budget / capability (not to mention the mid-air refueling). And Newton noted that this was his back-of-the-envelope analysis. But just go with it, because, as you'll see, the Raptor is the only way this is at all interesting.

There's a site, OpenFlights.org, which allows us to answer our second question, above: Where are all the airports? Open Flights has a database of every airport in the world, and a map of each. There are lots of airports peppered across the planet, as you'd expect, with the number correlating roughly to how developed and urban the region happens to be.

There are two problems, though. The first is that there's an awful lot of blue ocean where landing a plane becomes rather tricky. (Or, perhaps more accurately, landing and then taking off again is difficult.) The second is that time zones aren't evenly spaced.

Go back this map, which depicts all the time zones. You can see that the time zone labeled -2 (meaning two hours earlier than the widely-followed Greenwich Mean Time) incorporates very little land, since Greenland is almost all on GMT-3. If you want to land in GMT-2, you essentially have to fly to small islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean. Which, you can see on the airport map, includes not very many airports.

Which brings us back to the first image. If you had a plane that could cover infinite distance in the span of 60 minutes, you might plot a path that looks something like it, in which each point is a stop at an airport.

That is among the shortest possible paths that makes a stop at an airport in every time zone. Several legs of it, like the one in red, are far too long for our Raptor (much less the Gulfstream).

Which is not to say that you couldn't still have an interesting New Year's Eve. Using a Raptor, for example, you could go from LaGuardia to Chicago (717 nautical miles) to Denver (678 nm) to good ol' Las Vegas (627 nm) with relative ease. Not a bad party.

You can do similar jaunts across other continents: flitting across the South Pacific or Brazil.

If you don't have access to military hardware, you can still probably hit the four time zones in the United States in that Gulfstream, although you'd be touching down in less exciting locales. (Unless you love the Upper Plains, in which case: go for it.)

The maximum number of time zones you can hit by plane depends on the plane, of course, and on how much you're willing to push it. It seems as though the Gulfstream could get you from GMT+11 to Greenwich Mean Time -- on one tank of gas. The Raptor can do a little better, from GMT+12 to GMT-1.

But, look. If we're assuming you have access to an F-22 Raptor and a mid-air refueling system (or even short-turnaround access to the South Pole), then we might as well go whole hog. Let's say you can also get your hands on an aircraft carrier. In that case, we can park the vessel in the North Atlantic and make the Raptor flight more interesting.

To wit:

Park the carrier (red dot) close to the GMT-2/GMT-3 time zone boundary and you can float your way across the divide. With this route you can get a little further south of the Arctic, covering two continents and seven countries (not all of them likely to be receptive to American military aircraft making stops so someone can get out and have a sip of alcohol). Granted, you'd be constantly pushing the limits of the Raptor, but it's not like it's your plane.

(An aside: The "Pappy Boyington" for whom the airport in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho is named was, appropriately enough, a decorated fighter pilot.)

There's only one other consideration. In the F-22, it's just you; there's no space for anyone else, making this a particularly lonely way to spend the new year.

In the Gulfstream, it's you and 17 guests, plus someone who actually knows how to fly it. It's probably too late to charter one from Private Fly, but if you're willing to buy a plane, we imagine the company would be happy to help figure out how to make your Houghton County Airport-to-Pappy Boyington dreams come true.

Price tag? The G650 costs $65 million. Oh, plus that bottle of whiskey.

* If you want to try this at the North Pole, hurry -- or you're going to be doing a lot of swimming.

Story and images:   http://www.washingtonpost.com

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