As I write this, ZA002 (N787EX), Boeing's second 787 flight test aircraft is cruising up the coast of Canada at 36,000ft bound for the North Pole to spend the day evaluating a myriad of navigation systems.
I plugged in ZA002's flight plan into Great Circle Mapper to get a sense of 787's polar route, which will see the aircraft heading north along the Pacific coast toward Fairbanks, Alaska, before overflying the northern-most airport in the United States, Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Barrow, Alaska.
SEA J523 YZT J502 FAI Q61 BRW 7500N 16500W 8000N 17500W 8500N 17500W 8900N 15000W 9000N 00000W 8900N 13000W 8500N 13000W 8000N 13000W 7500N 13000W 7000N 12500W 6500N 12300W 6000N 12300W YYE J541 YYJ JAWBN1After crossing Barrow, ZA002 will continue north over the Beaufort Sea before reaching 90N 0W, also known as the geographic North Pole. (A 2005 estimate of the magnetic North Pole lies at 82.7°N 114.4°W)
The aircraft will then head south through Western Canada with a return to Boeing Field scheduled for 10:15 PM PT. With its departure this morning just before 8 AM from Seattle, the polar flight will be the longest performed by a 787 to date clocking in at more than 14 hours. This will break the record held by ZA004 at 12h 30min recorded during NAMS testing on May 19.
Aviation Week's Guy Norris provides a superb technical summary of the kind of navigation tests that ZA002 will conduct during the polar flight and includes his own personal experiences flying along with McDonnell Douglas MD-11 flight test teams in 1989 as they validated the aircraft's navigation systems over the North Pole:
Map Courtesy Karl Swartz
Although Boeing does not comment on specific flight tests, it is likely the crew will perform runs to and around the north pole in various modes and simulating various system failures. In 1989 I was lucky enough to be on a polar test flight during the latter stages of the MD-11 certification program, and joined the crew on the flight deck along with the FAA and JAA officials to see how the displays would cope with the transition over the pole itself. With darkness cloaking the scene outside, all eyes were on the large screens as the moment arrived. Despite several failure modes deliberately added to the mix, the system coped admirably - the displays momentarily 'blinked' before a rapid heading and track reversal occurred as we passed over the polar waypoint.
It was a strange thought that one second we were hurtling north at transonic speed, and the next we were pointing straight south. Our flight had begun in London and transited to the pole via Norway before crossing the top of the world and continuing south across Canada and the U.S. to McDonnell Douglas's test site in Yuma, Ariz. It was a memorable day, not least for allowing me to witness two sunrises and two sunsets in the space of 14 hours!