fly

Why Planes Don't Fly Over Tibet

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airplanes can travel for thousands of

kilometers across the world

rockets have landed men on the moon and

elon musk wants to land men on mars

within the next couple years

the world has been made so small by us

that it's easy to overlook some of the

forgotten parts

for example airplanes are traveling

through the skies pretty much

everywhere on earth at all times but

if you were to open up a live global air

traffic map

right now and pan over to asia you'll

see

nothing over this massive area of the

continent

regardless of whenever you do this it

always appears that all of the world's

airplanes are simply avoiding this huge

area and going

out of their way to fly around it like

it's some kind of forbidden zone to

travel over or fly through and it's not

like this is the middle of the ocean

this is a huge area of land directly

over asia the world's most heavily

populated continent

so why is this happening well there's a

lot of reasons but before we get into

that

you need to know about some aviation

history in the region the dead zone in

question is over a geographic region

known as the tibetan plateau and it's

one of the world's

biggest wastelands after antarctica and

northern greenland the tibetan plateau

is the least hospitable place for humans

to live in the entire world and is the

most sparsely populated it's an area

that's over five

times larger than france but only has a

population

of a little over 14 million people

across the seven countries that it spans

over

so few people live here because the

plateau's average elevation

is over 4 500 meters tall

making the tibetan plateau the highest

geographic region in the world and

earning it the nickname

the roof of the world the nickname is

aptly deserved because the roof of the

world

has been one of the world's biggest

obstacles to aviation for decades

the first large-scale attempt to fly

across the plateau

was during the second world war when the

allies in what was then british india

needed to airlift supplies into china to

assist them in the fight against the

japanese the route wasn't especially far

simply from eastern india into kunmeng

in china a distance of just a little

over 840 kilometers

but because they were flying over the

remote mountains and

high steps of the tibetan plateau the

pilots faced extremely violent

turbulence

wind speeds up to 200 miles per hour

temperatures cold enough to freeze their

fuel

implement weather events that were

difficult to predict and almost no

emergency airports that they could

divert to

in the event of an accident let alone

the occasional intervention of japanese

fighters

all of these hazards added up to an

incredibly dangerous flight path that

over the time span of 42

months saw 594 planes and

1 659 men who were lost in the mountains

never to be seen again the vast majority

of these losses were a simple result

of the dangerous elements the pilots

were flying through and

not a result of enemy action and for

reference

the loss in life for the allied air

crews here was even higher than during

the entire battle of britain

against the germans in some months as

many as

50 percent of all allied planes that

flew the route were crashing which would

obviously

not exactly be an acceptable loss rate

to a modern airliner today

luckily for the modern airliners the

tibetan plateau has been gradually

opened up in the decades since the

second world war

the first airport in chinese tibet was

built in 1956

and the modern airport in the tibetan

capital lahasa was built a decade later

in 1965.

today there are two significant

international airports located on the

tibetan plateau

in lahasa and jining both of these

airports primarily handle domestic air

travel to and from the rest of china

but lahasa has a single international

flight to kathmandu

while zhening maintains flights to

taipei tokyo and kuala lumpur

so it's true that there sometimes are

planes flying over the tibetan plateau

in modern times but almost every

international flight between eastern

asia and the west

will go out of their way to avoid flying

over it take this flight

this flight or this flight just as a

handful of examples so now that we've

gone through some history lessons

why do most airliners continue to avoid

flying over tibet

on their longer flights today despite

the existence of modern international

airports and

you know being able to actually fly over

the mountains it ultimately comes down

to

four primary reasons that we're going to

go through the first of which

is the stupidly huge risk during

emergency situations

think about it like this the average

elevation of the tibetan plateau

is well over 14 000 feet and airliners

usually

cruise at over 30 000 feet normally not

a problem but under certain

critical emergency situations like a

cabin depressurization

or engine failure event airline protocol

is to descend

down to 10 000 feet in a cabin

depressurization scenario the plane will

drop

oxygen mask for passengers to breathe

but there's only a limited supply

generally only around 20 minutes this is

intended to be enough time for the

passengers to last breathing on

while the plane descends down to 10 000

feet where normal breathing conditions

can be resumed

now obviously this isn't possible

anywhere over the vast tibetan plateau

that's over five times the size of

france because the

average elevation is over fourteen

thousand feet

meaning that if a plane descended down

to ten thousand feet as protocol demands

it would almost certainly crash into the

side of a mountain

and everyone would die if a cabin

depressurization happens over tibet

the only nearby major international

airport safe enough

and close enough for most big airliners

to divert to in an emergency

are la hassa jining kathmandu chengdu

urumki

and almady these airports are all

hundreds or thousands

of kilometers away from each other and

they mostly ring around the uninhabited

plateau

when a plane flies from kathmandu to

lahasa for example

kathmandu and lahasa are each the

alternate emergency airport in addition

to being the destination in 2018

a sichuan airlines flight was flying

from chongqing to lahasa

across the plateau at 30 000 ft when a

window blew out and it suffered a

depressurization event

fortunately the pilots weren't very far

across into the plateau so they were

able to quickly turn around

and divert to the airport at chengdu for

an emergency landing within 35

minutes of the depressurization

happening the deeper an emergency like

this happens into the plateau

the more dangerous the emergency becomes

because of how far

away you can get from any airports to

divert to leading to longer times

up in the air without any oxygen this

leads us into problem number two for why

airplanes don't fly over tibet

there's just nobody that really lives

there so there isn't really a very big

demand

long-haul international flights between

europe and asia will avoid flying over

tibet because they don't want to risk

having an emergency situation while

flying over it

but there aren't that many shorter

domestic flights either because there's

just so few people there

the tibet autonomous region in china has

just a little over

3 million people who live across the

entire massive

area meaning that despite tibet taking

up almost 13

of china's total land it only accounts

for

0.2 percent of china's total population

the next two reasons why long-haul

flights avoid flying over tibet are bad

turbulence and the risk of jet fuel

freezing

when fast winds move across the plateau

and the mountains the wind will often

take a wave-shaped pattern that looks

like this

and when airplanes fly through this wind

pattern the turbulence can get extremely

bumpy which can further complicate any

emergency scenarios

and finally there's the problem of jet

fuel theoretically

jet fuel freezes when the temperature

gets below minus 40 celsius

and while extremely cold conditions like

that rarely take place anywhere the jets

fly

the temperatures in the air above the

already high and cold tibetan plateau

can get to that point or worse this

isn't really a problem for a short

flight through

but for longer flights across the

plateau that might last for six hours or

more

this can become a really significant

problem ultimately

the big reason why airplanes almost

always avoid flying over the tibetan

plateau to get to their destinations

isn't because of any supernatural curse

or something like that but a simple

reality that if they were to experience

an emergency while flying across

it would perhaps be the most dangerous

place anywhere over the inhabited

earth's continents

to experience it it's a reminder that

despite how advanced

connected safe and small our world may

seem

there's still a few wild and remote

areas left that are

dangerous for us to travel through if

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