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The Long Way Round: Why Flight Paths Are Curved

Flight paths are curved due to the Earth’s spherical shape and the principles of great circle routes. While the Earth appears flat on small scales, it is actually a three-dimensional sphere. When you draw a straight line on a flat map, it doesn’t correspond to the shortest distance between two points on the curved surface of the Earth. This is where the concept of a great circle route comes in.

A great circle is the largest circle that can be drawn on the surface of a sphere. It’s analogous to the equator on Earth. The shortest distance between two points on the surface of a sphere is along a great circle route. When it comes to aviation, flying along a great circle route is the most efficient way to cover the shortest distance between two locations.

To illustrate this, imagine you’re flying from New York City to Tokyo. On a flat map, you might draw a straight line from New York to Tokyo, which seems like the shortest path. However, when you consider the spherical nature of the Earth, that straight line is actually curved when viewed on a three-dimensional globe.

Pilots and air traffic controllers use navigation systems that take the Earth’s curvature into account when planning routes. These systems calculate the great circle route between two points, which often results in a curved flight path when displayed on flat maps or navigation screens. This curved path may seem longer than a straight line on a map, but it’s actually the shortest distance when considering the Earth’s actual shape.

In summary, flight paths appear curved due to the Earth’s spherical shape and the use of great circle routes to determine the shortest distance between two points on the surface of the Earth. While they may look longer on flat maps, these curved paths are the most efficient and direct routes for air travel.

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