A Short History of Circumnavigation

For an astronaut stationed on the International Space Station it takes 90 minutes to circumnavigate Earth. For Phileas Fogg it took 80 days. For a gap year student, well, it takes a year.

From Volume 5
A Short History of Circumnavigation

For an astronaut stationed on the International Space Station it takes 90 minutes to circumnavigate Earth. For Phileas Fogg it took 80 days. For a gap year student, well, it takes a year. The idea that we can even contemplate a trip around the world as a thing demonstrates how dramatically more accessible air travel has become.

In Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days from 1989, originally broadcast on the BBC, he sets out to follow in the footsteps of Jules Verne and circumnavigate by everything but plane. He starts the program by outlining the reasons for his trip: He wants to slow things down, to truly experience the countless countries he is about to pass through. I have always wondered what would have happened if he had done a parallel show where he would only fly. I suspect it would have been just as interesting, just as colorful, but of course much, much shorter. 

Speedflying

Twenty-seven years after Michael Palin, Noel Philips, a UK-based film maker, set out to complete Michael Palin’s 'missed' opportunity and completes a journey around the world in 80 hours. With the exception of a hairy moment with a taxi driver it went pretty smoothly and he made it back to the Meridian Line in Greenwich in time. He does this journey using an itinerary made up of different airlines, with connecting points in Kuwait, India, Singapore, Los Angeles and back to London followed in the geographic footprint of  Phileas Fogg as closely as possible but jumping from airport to airport. The resulting program ended up as a 46 min film shared on YouTube.

Eighty hours is by no means the fastest way to circumnavigate the world by commercial airplane. It can be done much, much faster. In 1980, David Springbett, a former insurance broker, flew around the world in 44 hours and six minutes. His trick was flying to Singapore via Bahrain onboard British Airways’ Concorde, a short lived service they operated from 1979 to 1980, cutting hours off an otherwise very long journey. The record still stands today, even though there are seemingly more connections between more points on the planet than ever before.

Pan Am & BOAC

Pan Am's Eastbound Round the World Service time table from 1966

From June 1948 to October 1982, Pan Am offered a round the world itinerary as part of its regular flying schedule, the first airline to do so. This wasn’t just clever marketing, it was also a showcase for the breath and expertise that the airline had to offer and a showcase of American soft power. In fact Pan Am operated two around the world routes, one westbound another eastbound flying as Pan Am 001 & 002 respectively, indicating the prestige of the routes in Pan Am’s schedule. This type of flying was only possible through what’s called 5th freedom arrangements, where an airline from one country flies between two other countries. BOAC soon followed suit and also offered an around the world service from London to London stopping at many of the UK's former colonies, a sort of Commonwealth stopping service.

BOAC Speed Across the World, promotional map, 1950s.

The other way around

The large majority of circumnavigation journeys either head east or west, but what about north or south? When Pan Am celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1977, they planned a different sort of circumnavigation flight, one that would take in both the north and south pole, a feat that’s hardly ever been repeated.

Their celebratory flight started in San Francisco, headed north to cross the North Pole on its way to London. From there, they continued south to Cape Town. The next leg of the journey was entirely unique, flying straight to Auckland, crossing over the South Pole, before continuing back to San Francisco and completing the circle. The South Pole remains about the only area in the world that has yet to see any sort or regular traffic crossing the icy continent.

No single airline offers round the world flights anymore, but by combining flights by different airlines it is very easy to put together your own itinerary. The One World Alliance (other alliances do the same) provides an Around the World tool where you can plan your journey meticulously. You pick and choose your airports, time of departure, airline, class of travel. The search engine then connects flights together seamlessly and off you go.

Various routes around the world with the North Pole at center. 

Ultra

As of October 2022, Singapore Airlines operates the world's longest commercial flight: Singapore to New York, which is basically halfway around the world. The outbound flight (SQ24) from Singapore usually flies westwards over the Pacific and the United States before touching down in New York 18 hours later. The return flight (SQ23) either retraces its steps back westwards or continues flying east over the North Atlantic, through Europe, the Middle East and finally arriving back in Singapore. This then means that you could fly around the world on a single
return ticket. 

When a new ultra-long haul route is announced like Singapore to New York I am always reminded of a clip in a film by Thomas Winterberg’s called It’s All About Love from 2003. It is story of a couple and their attempt at saving their marriage. At the periphery of this story is the character called Marciello played by Sean Penn. John gives Marciello, his brother, a call. He answers his phone as he walks through the aisle.

Marciello: John I am up in a plane.

John: Aren’t you afraid of flying? Terrified of it?

Marciello: No they gave me an injection against it but they gave me an overdose so I can only fly now. 

John: Only fly?

Like the Singapore flight to New York, these single flights are so long, conquering multiple continents in a single hop. An extraordinary feat of technical engineering but also of human endurance. It then seemingly leaves very few points on earth unconnected, but what if direct flights weren’t the end all. If you study Pan Am routings on their round the world flights, there are multiple stops in countries along the way. I would argue that it was those stop-overs that made circumnavigation interesting in the first place. Imagine landing at Wake Atoll on a Pacific crossing in the 1950s and  you pull the curtain aside (airplanes had curtains back then) and spot an albatross through your tiny porthole window. 

Through advances in both hardware (the planes, infrastructure, airports) and software (how we book flights, explore potential destinations) we are now able to bypass these potential experiences. The polar opposite of Michael Palin’s journey across the world. 

Flying can be stressful, the processes that get us to the actual plane are complicated and unfriendly. The journey itself can seem so tedious that many of us escape into the screen in front of us to make the time go by. Then of course there is the environmental factor. Every lap around the world produces untold tons of CO2 and there are no alternatives on the near-horizon. With that said, I think we sometimes forget what an incredible privilege flying is, and perhaps we ought to sometimes just sit back and marvel at the incredibleness of it all.