How a Space.com Columnist Convinced an Airline to Chase the Eclipse
Phillip Calais took this image of a plane flying during a partial solar eclipse in early May 2013 from Monument Hill in Fremantle, Australia. He took this photo using a Canon 40D with Canon 400 mm f5.6 lens and a 2x teleconverter. The photo was taken at 7:05 a.m. and the sun was only about 1.4 degrees above the horizon.
Credit: Copyright Phillip Calais

This is a story about how you can sometimes move mountains — or, in this case, airplanes — with a simple suggestion. 

Back in March 2015, I emailed the corporate offices of Alaska Airlines. It was not to register a complaint; in fact, I had never flown on that particular carrier. But in just less than a year, a total eclipse of the sun was going to move across parts of Indonesia. I had no intention of going to the "Emerald of the Equator" for the eclipse, but I did take note that later, the narrow totality path, where a total eclipse would be visible, was going to sweep 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) north of Hawaii. 

That's when an idea flashed into my head: What if a commercial aircraft were flying either from Honolulu to Anchorage, Alaska, or vice versa? A line connecting those two cities would cross over the totality path at approximately 0330 GMT on March 9 — that would correspond to 5:30 p.m. Hawaii Time on March 8. A quick check of the various travel websites revealed that there was indeed just such a flight that could possibly fit the bill: Alaska Airlines Flight 870, Anchorage to Honolulu. [Sky-High Solar Eclipse? Here's What You Might See from an Airplane]

Unfortunately, based on my calculations, that flight would leave Anchorage about a half-hour too early and would arrive at its potential intersection point with the lunar shadow well before the shadow itself would arrive. So my email to Alaska Airlines contained a request:

"Could you delay your Flight 870 from Anchorage by about a half an hour on March 8 next year?"

Of course, I explained the reason for the request and provided a detailed map that depicted the flight path relative to the totality path of the eclipse. I indicated that other than delaying the flight and making a few minor tweaks to the flight path (to properly position the sun through the right side/starboard windows), there would not be much difference compared to a regular daily flight. Indeed, upon leaving Anchorage en route to Honolulu, the aircraft (a Boeing 737-900) would head almost due south, while the lunar shadow would approach the plane perpendicularly from almost due west. A departure at 2 p.m. instead of 1:30 p.m. practically ensured that a rendezvous with a total solar eclipse over the Pacific Ocean would be possible. 

But I didn't sell Alaska Airlines — a Fortune 500 company — immediately on the idea. Indeed, this was a most unusual "thinking outside of the box" type of idea. Among my selling points: Most airlines offer flight amenities such as in-flight movies, audio entertainment and free Wi-Fi, but how many would offer customers the opportunity to see one of nature's grandest spectacles?

Over the course of the summer of 2015, I continued to write and call (OK, maybe badger) Alaska Airlines about the eclipse concept for Flight 870. The answer back was always the same: "We're still considering it." Finally, in October, I was told that a meeting at the Seattle corporate headquarters would be scheduled to decide on the eclipse option. And that's when a high school buddy of mine stepped in and closed the deal. [Total Solar Eclipse 2017: When, Where and How to See It (Safely)]

That person was Glenn Schneider, an astronomer at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory and the project instrument scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer. His research interests are centered on the formation, evolution and characterization of extrasolar planetary systems. 

But he is also a dedicated "umbraphile" — literally, a "shadow lover," but as properly applied, one who is addicted to the glory and majesty of total solar eclipses. Glenn has traveled to 33 total eclipses since seeing his first in 1970. 

Over the years, Glenn has become proficient in drawing up flight plans for a number of charter airline flights to view total eclipses. But Alaska Airlines Flight 870 was different. It was not a charter, but a regularly scheduled commercial flight. 

So mainly out of a friendship that has spanned more than 40 years, Glenn was kind enough to draw up a flight plan that would place Flight 870 in the path of the moon's shadow. I then forwarded it to Brian Holm, the 737 fleet captain of Alaska Airlines. After looking at Glenn's computations, Holm told the Alaska Airlines higher-ups that he saw no reason why they couldn't do this; it seemed like a wonderful opportunity.

And with that, the decision was made: Flight 870 was a "go" for the March 8, 2016, total eclipse! And indeed, it was an extremely successful venture!

See: 'Tornado of Darkness': We Saw the Total Solar Eclipse from a Plane

In the aftermath of the flight, Alaska Airlines experienced a tremendous amount of good publicity, with news media congratulating the carrier on the amazing idea to give passengers a chance to see a total solar eclipse from the air. And with the "Great American Eclipse of 2017" rapidly approaching, the airline decided to do it again. 

But this time, it will not be a commercial flight. Rather, a charter flight will be completely dedicated to viewing the total solar eclipse.

See: Solar Eclipse 2017: Alaska Airlines Flight Will Offer View Above the Clouds

My role in this upcoming venture was like a "bolt out of the blue." I originally planned to be on the ground for the upcoming eclipse. But in mid-May, I was contacted by Alaska Airlines, who asked if I could assist in the planning for another flight into the lunar shadow. Once again, I got together with Glenn, and we both listened to what the airline wanted to do. 

The original game plan was to fly out of Portland, Oregon, on eclipse-day morning and intercept the shadow out over the Pacific Ocean approximately 100 miles (160 km) west of Salem, Oregon. But immediately, Glenn and I saw a problem: The altitude of the sun above the horizon at totality would be 40 degrees, or roughly four times higher than last year's Anchorage-to-Honolulu adventure.

That meant that passengers sitting at a window would only be able to see the eclipsed sun by putting their face up against the aircraft window and looking up toward the top of the window frame. Trying to take a photograph or a video of the sun suddenly became problematic — indeed, any prospective videographer would have to crouch down in their seat and somehow aim their camera upward at an angle toward the window. 

There was some talk of possibly "banking" the aircraft at roughly a 15-degree angle, which would bring the sun into a better viewing position through the windows. But Alaska Airlines wanted its aircraft to fly on a level path and also to place the sun at an angle that would allow passengers both at the window and the adjacent middle seat to "comfortably" see the sun, with little need for squirming or crouching.  

To do that, we would have to aim for a spot along the eclipse track farther offshore to the west: The farther west one goes (toward that point where the moon's shadow first strikes the Earth's surface at local sunrise), the lower in the sky the sun will get. Glenn and I determined that the altitude of the sun should be no higher than 25 degrees above the horizon for viewers at both the windows and the adjacent middle seats to get a good view. 

In fact, there was a precedent to that particular angle. In August 2008, the two of us were on board an LTU Airbus A330-200 that flew over the North Pole and encountered a total solar eclipse along the way. The altitude of the sun on that exotic journey into darkness was 25 degrees, and everyone on board obtained a perfect view.

See: Solar Eclipse Wows Airborne Skywatchers Over Arctic Circle

For the flight during the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, our destination will be a spot over the North Pacific some 1,000 miles (1,600 km) west of the Oregon coast. Our duration of totality (103 seconds) will be less than at any place in the totality path in the U.S. But at an altitude of 36,000 feet (11,000 meters), we are virtually assured of clear skies. So the stage is set, we believe, for another memorable airborne adventure into the lunar shadow for this coming Monday. 

And Alaska Airlines is literally picking up where it left off: 

During the 2016 eclipse, passengers and crew on board Flight 870 were likely the last ones on Earth to see the eclipse just before the moon's shadow slipped off the surface of the Earth. And on Monday, passengers on board the upcoming Alaska Airlines charter will likely be the very first to experience totality; the shadow will reach the 737-900 aircraft a full 15 minutes before it arrives at the coast of Oregon for the start of its sojourn for waiting millions across the United States. [How Scientists Predict the Path of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse]

 

A small portion of the passengers watching the Aug. 1, 2008 solar eclipse from onboard LTU Polar Flight 1111 en route to the North Pole.
A small portion of the passengers watching the Aug. 1, 2008 solar eclipse from onboard LTU Polar Flight 1111 en route to the North Pole.
Credit: Joe Rao

 

In recent weeks, I've received a number of requests from folks who have asked me if I could assist them in mounting their own aerial campaigns to observe the upcoming eclipse from an aircraft. Many speak of trying to "race" the lunar shadow in an attempt to extend the duration of totality. Some are traveling on commercial aircraft cross-country on eclipse day and have asked me what their chances are of encountering the shadow during their flight. And I've even had requests from at least two major commercial air carriers asking if they could replicate what Alaska Airlines did  — and intends to do again on Monday —  with aircraft over the central Great Plains, Lower Ohio and Tennessee Valley, near the point of the longest duration of totality. 

In one particular case, some people have already bought their tickets for a particular commercial flight from Portland, Oregon, to Atlanta, in hopes of eclipse views from a flight following the eclipse path, Mic.com reported. The route was originally posted on Instagram and Reddit.

To anyone considering buying a ticket on that flight, I would add the term "caveat emptor" ("Let the buyer beware") — because even if that aircraft makes it into the totality zone, there will be no views of the darkened sun!

(The airline has not sold or advertised this route to view the eclipse.)

Remember what I said earlier concerning the high altitude of the sun? At the Oregon coast, the sun will be 40 degrees above the horizon, but it will be even higher at points farther to the east. 

As Glenn noted, "By the time the lunar umbra 'catches up' to the longitude of the aircraft (but most likely not at the same latitude at the right time — though [they] could get lucky in that), the aircraft will likely be at or about over Nebraska or Missouri. By then (and there), the altitude of the sun above the horizon will be greater than 60 degrees and impossible to see out the aircraft windows (without getting into a steep bank).

"So," he added, "all you will need to do is cut a hole in the roof of the aircraft." 

Editor's note: Find out how the solar eclipse will look from your location — Space.com has teamed up with Simulation Curriculum to offer this awesome Eclipse Safari app to help you enjoy your eclipse experience. The free app is available for Apple and Android, and you can view it on the web. If you take an amazing photo of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, let us know! Send photos and comments to spacephotos@space.com.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer's Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for Verizon Fios1 News, based in Rye Brook, New York. Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook and Google+. Original article onSpace.com