Passengers aboard a chartered Boeing 737 operated by Alaska Airlines had a unique view of Monday’s eclipse, getting some grand-scale perspective and a very different experience from those watching on the ground.
Some 90 people aboard a chartered Boeing 737 operated by Alaska Airlines had a unique experience of Monday’s total eclipse of the sun, getting some grand-scale perspective not apparent from the ground.
The flight took off from Portland shortly before 7:30 a.m. and headed southwest with bright sunshine bouncing off the white clouds that blanketed the Pacific Ocean below. Then the plane swung north, navigated to intercept the eclipse’s “path of totality” at precisely 10 a.m.
With passengers using special blackened eclipse glasses to view the sun, the first bite out of its disk was clearly visible just after 9 a.m. as the moon began to encroach. By 9:45 the sun was more than three-quarters eclipsed, and yet the sunlight around the plane seemed unaffected.
Then, with totality minutes away, the drama arrived swiftly.
In the view westward out of the left side of the airplane, a band of high clouds that was gray instead of white grew darker and darker. In the moments before entering totality, the shadow swept rapidly toward us.
The shadow was not visible in the air above, only on the flat, broken cloudscape below us. On those clouds, bright sunshine defined the edges of the shadow — an elliptical cross-section of the moon’s conical umbra.
At this altitude, the shadow, while immense, was clearly finite. It seemed to move over us as might the shadow cast by some giant alien spacecraft in a Hollywood movie.
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But this was real, and the awesome precision of science told us that the looming presence hurtling past us overhead was not a spaceship, but the moon.
As the shadow engulfed us, the sun to the east, on the right side of the airplane, was totally eclipsed.
The sun’s corona created a clear ring around the black hole that covered the disk. For a fleeting moment, as the sun’s first rays began to emerge on the other side of the shadow — viewed through the darkened eclipse glasses — it sparkled at one end like a diamond ring.
Up to that point in the flight, the plane’s wings had reflected the glare of the sun. During the one minute and 43 seconds of totality, they slipped into shadow. The sky above was a dark, dark blue.
Yet there was not the blackness one might have experienced on the ground. For beyond the shadow, to left and right, the sun still shone.
A different experience
When the moment of totality came at 40,000 feet, there was no hushing of the natural world of birds, insects and animals that one might detect at some remote viewing spot on earth.
Inside the jet’s passenger cabin, there was instead a pronounced hush among the passengers as all crowded the windows, trying to take in the fleeting moments of totality.
Astronomers and a NASA astronaut were among those aboard the invitation-only charter flight. So, too, were some ardent eclipse chasers, veterans of previous total eclipses, and some winners of raffles and social-media competitions organized by Alaska Airlines.
Brothers Miles and Braden Timpe were aboard because their parents — both Alaska Airlines employees — donated their spot on the plane. Both sons had more than a passing interest.
Miles, 28, is an astronomer with an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington and is currently doing his Ph.D. in Zurich. He came home to Seattle so he could take the flight. Braden, 25, is busy trying to earn his pilot’s license, flying out of Renton.
Another eclipse chaser, Dennis Cassia, is a retired high-school teacher and firefighter from Connecticut. He has seen four previous total solar eclipses from the ground.
“Once you’ve seen one, you’re going to want to see another,” he said on the way out to see the eclipse.
After it was over, Cassia said the jet had offered a very different perspective.
“On the ground, within the moon’s shadow, it is dark. You can see stars,” he said. “From the airplane, you see the shadow, but you are high enough that you get to see the regular sky on either side. It didn’t really get dark because you have the light from left and right.
“It’s a completely different experience,” Cassia said.
Scientists in the 19th century traveled the globe on months-long ocean expeditions to observe and collect data on the extraordinary phenomenon of a total solar eclipse.
Viewing the event from a plane is faster. Yet the logistics were anything but simple.
Well in advance, Alaska Airlines pilot Brian Holm worked with University of Arizona astronomer Glenn Schneider to chart the precise flight path in an effort to ensure the most spectacular view.
That meant intercepting the moon’s shadow at a precise time and place as it raced across the Pacific.
The shadow moves at different speeds depending on where it’s touching down on the earth. It took just 90 minutes to sweep across the entire U.S. continent from Lincoln Beach, Ore., to just north of Charleston, S.C., in a 60-mile-wide band.
But out in the Pacific it was traveling much faster. At the planned point of interception, it was moving east at approximately 4,000 mph. An airplane flying at just over 500 mph cannot keep up with that.
So for the pilot in command, Steve Fulton, and co-pilot, Hal Andersen, it was a matter of intersecting the moon shadow’s path.
Andersen gave regular updates on the accuracy of the flight path during the two-and-a-half-hour approach to the interception point, routinely reporting throughout the flight that the jet was “plus or minus five seconds” and no more than 120 feet from the target rendezvous time and position.
Fulton and Andersen were the ideal pilots for the mission. The two worked together as pioneers of precisely navigated flying at Alaska Airlines, starting with their charting of an innovative and exactly calculated flight path into Juneau, Alaska, in 1992.
After doing that for some years, they left Alaska to form their own company, Naverus, later bought by GE, that built such advanced flight procedures for airports all over the globe.
After totality had passed, Fulton, in an interview, said the eclipse flight had demonstrated a kind of four-dimensional precision navigation that will be the future for the air traffic control system.
Today, air traffic controllers ask pilots to head for a three-dimensional waypoint on their route. In future, said Fulton, the technology is there for pilots to do what he did Monday: to make a precise rendezvous in both time and space.
Fulton and Andersen are now back working at Alaska as line pilots. They also work on committees with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop the Next Generation air traffic control system.
The eclipse flight will be the subject of a presentation they’ll make to an FAA advisory committee in October.