Jet Stream Discovered, Advances Aviation

Jet Stream Discovered, Advances Aviation

“American aviator Wiley Harderman Post is credited with discovering the jet stream, on this day in 1934.

Wiley Post was born into a farming community in Texas in 1898, his family moving to Oklahoma when he was five. His flying career began relatively late when he got a job as a stunt parachutist in a flying circus at the age of 25. He soon graduated to flying, and gained a position as pilot for two Oklahoman oil magnates, Powell Briscoe and F.C. Hall. In 1926, an accident at an oil field left him with only one eye, but with the money he received as compensation, Wiley was able to purchase his first aircraft, and his flying career began in earnest.

In 1930, with significant financial backing from his oil-rich employers, Wiley was able to successfully complete the fastest ever fixed-wing flight around the Earth. This feat brought fame and recognition, and even a tickertape parade through New York, but innate prejudices over his background and lack of formal education scuppered his plans to open an aviation school. Instead, he pursued experiments with high-altitude flying and the development of high-pressure flight suits. It was in the course of these experiments that Wiley’s jet stream discovery was made.

On an experimental high-altitude flight on 7 December 1934, Wiley manoeuvred his aeroplane into a fast-moving air current, resulting in significant increase in ground speed. The discovery proved a pivotal moment in aviation history, as it opened the door for high-altitude, ultra high-speed air travel. Through harnessing the natural forces of jet steams, aircraft have been able to fly greater distances at greater speeds, and the cost of air travel has been markedly reduced through large reductions in fuel consumption.

Jet streams are super fast flowing channels of air, caused by fluctuations in atmospheric pressure within the upper levels of the Earth’s atmosphere. They are formed when fronts of warm air collide with cold ones, and typically occur between 25,000 and 50,000 feet above the Earth. The speed of flow is dependent on the disparity between colliding atmospheric systems, but jet streams have been recorded at anywhere between 50 and 215 knots (between 90 and 400 kph). At most times of year there are two distinct jet stream systems, one sub-tropical, and one polar.

The first commercial use of the jet stream was in November 1952, when a Pan-Am aircraft made the flight from Tokyo to Honolulu in just over eleven hours; this was almost seven hours quicker than conventional flying had previously allowed.

Sadly, Wiley Post was never able to witness the potential of the jet stream within the aviation industry. In August 1935, while attempting a take-off in hazardous conditions when carrying out reconnaissance work in Canada, Wiley’s aircraft experienced difficulties and nose-dived into a lake. He, along with his navigator and friend the actor Will Rogers, was killed instantly.”

Credit: Courtesy LPI/NASA
Caption: A band of cirrus clouds produced by a jet stream that stretches from Sudan to Saudi Arabia.