Viewing the Total Solar Eclipse from 40,000 ft

People planned years in advance to experience the solar eclipse first hand, but all the planning in the world couldn’t account for clouds swooping in at the last minute effectively ruining the show. For some 90 people on August 21 that concern didn’t exist.

Usually the only noise to fill an airplane is the humming of the engine and the occasional “What can I get you?” as the flight attendants offer snacks and beverages. In stark contrast, a chartered Boeing 737 operated by Alaska Airlines was buzzing with excitement from takeoff to landing. The energy and camaraderie was incredible as everyone on the flight shared the same purpose – to witness a solar eclipse from the sky.

In a flight this specialized, there were a lot of logistical challenges that went above and beyond planning a normal flight. They were mind boggling. As the flight captain remarked, “it’s like trying to intercept a football that is traveling at 5,000 mph.” With the help of Dr. Glenn Schneider, astronomer at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, the team calculated the precise point at the precise second needed to optimize the viewing experience for the passengers. Variables including weather, air traffic and wind drift needed to be accounted for. In fact, they had 45 pages of back up contingency plans. There was a lot of pressure on the pilots to hit their mark, and hit it they did!

As the flight took off from Portland, Oregon, cheers erupted throughout the cabin. The long awaited journey was underway. The destination – 1,000 miles west of the Oregon coastline over the Pacific Ocean. The energy throughout the cabin was full of anticipation, enthusiasm and pure joy.

The eclipse began at exactly 9:40 a.m. Passengers suddenly stopped mingling, took their seats, donned their protective glasses and stared out the window. Then a mere 20 minutes later, the cabin fell silent – totality. Everyone was in complete awe. The spectacular corona, the gaseous envelope of the sun, shined and danced in all its glory. Then suddenly the breathtaking “diamond ring” appeared, signifying the end of totality.

After the event, the immense shadow of the moon, known as the umbra, swept over the Pacific Ocean towards the United States. It was an unforgettable site. Millions of people on the ground were waiting for that shadow so they could bask in totality. It was awe-inspiring to see the umbra move in their direction knowing what excitement it would hold for so many people.

A champagne toast celebrated the successful, 1 minute and 43 second view of totality. Afterwards, passengers couldn’t stop talking about the incredible phenomenon they just witnessed. Dr. Evgenya Shkolnik, professor of astrophysics at the School Space Exploration at Arizona State University, spoke for everyone on the flight when she said, “It was amazing and even more beautiful that I expected. My heart is a flutter.”

Words fail to describe the experience of seeing totality from the sky. It’s safe to say that everyone on the Alaska Airlines flight became a “umbraphile,” a total eclipse junkie who will go to any extreme to get into the path of totality. 2024 can’t get here fast enough!