Chasing the Sun at 39,000 Feet – Sky & Telescope


Partial solar eclipse above clouds
Like a giant tooth or claw, the eclipsed Sun appears just after sunrise over southern Ontario on Thursday, June 10th.
Bob King

Wow! I just got back from seeing my first solar eclipse from the air. A spectacular tooth of sunlight appeared moments after sunrise; clouds followed minutes later, then a flexing ring of sunlight around the Moon. I shared these sights with 32 passionate eclipse chasers from around the country, along with Delta Airlines representatives and the flight crew, on Sky & Telescope‘s 2021 annular eclipse flight on the morning of Thursday, June 10th.

a group of people stand next to a plane, holding a sign advertising the sky & telescope eclipse tour
The eclipse participants celebrate with a group photo on the tarmac after the flight.
Bob King

We departed Minneapolis on a Delta Airbus A319-100 shortly after 3 a.m. and headed for the path of annularity over southern Ontario. From a window I watched Jupiter and Saturn while flashes of lightning from thunderstorms below lit up the “sky” beneath us. We arrived within the path of annularity ahead of schedule, which netted us a chance to see the Sun rising while deeply incised by the Moon’s disk. Pesky high clouds initially threatened to rob our view of a very low Sun. So, in a gambit to see as much of the eclipse as possible, the skilled pilots increased the plane’s altitude to its maximum — 39,000 feet. They also tilted the starboard wing downward by 5° to get it out of the way, while maintaining a straight course.

a map showing the map of the eclipse flight
Bob King

All passengers had their own window seats. Most, like Sarah Azizi of Philadelphia, who coincidentally was celebrating her 35th birthday the same day, watched it all through a safe solar filter.

“It moved me to tears. It felt like a cosmic communion.”

celebrating the eclipse flight
Ross Kessler gives his partner Sarah Azizi a kiss on her birthday after the eclipse flight. Both live in Philadelphia.
Bob King

Others employed careful and elaborate camera setups using off-the-shelf cameras and telephoto lenses to capture images of the Moon’s remarkable passage across the Sun.

The cabin erupted in whoops and hollers when the horn of the crescent Sun first clawed its way up out of a distant cloud bank. Rob Marciano, chief meteorologist for ABC News, sat in the seat behind me and couldn’t get over how bright the Sun still appeared even when it was no thicker than an onion ring.

before, during, and after annularity
Here are three views of the Sun taken shortly before annularity (left), during annularity, and shortly after.
Bob King

“It’s surreal to see it from an airplane,” Marciano said. He surmised it was the simple fact that we were above three-quarters of most of the atmosphere. With little haze, water vapor, and air itself to filter the sunlight the way we see it from the ground, it rose blindingly bright and immediately required filtering for photographs.

a man holds his camera up to the window inside a plane
Fred Walden of San Francisco presses his camera up against a window to photograph the annular eclipse. It was his first eclipse flight and his first annular eclipse.
Bob King

We were given a generous amount of time to linger in the eclipse path. The Sun put on a splendid show, while far below a thick blanket of clouds made me lose my bearings. Where were we exactly? Once the Moon released a third of the Sun back into view, the plane turned around and began its return trip to Minneapolis. We cheered and clapped and celebrated our success with a champagne toast!

a man sits on a plane with a laptop in his lap, looking at an image of a solar eclipse
Eliot Herman of Tucson looks through his take on the return to Minneapolis. He was especially interested in recording the black drop effect — when the Moon’s limb appears to nearly “touch” the Sun’s inner limb.
Bob King

Anthony Block, a spokesperson for Delta who joined our gang for his first eclipse, was caught up in the shared passion and excitement by the flight’s “community of people.”

“The enthusiasm was really refreshing. There was a sense of unity,” he said. He added that at the plane’s highest altitude, “I almost felt I was in outer space.”

three men - two in pilot's uniforms and one in plain clothes - stand in front of an airplane, smiling
Sky & Telescope editor Kelly Beatty stands with the two Delta Airlines pilots, Art Smith and Gary Beltz, who flew the chartered eclipse plane. Just in case the first plane experienced any trouble, a second jet parked nearby was fueled and ready to fly.
Bob King

After the toast, veteran “eclipsophile” Craig Small, who has worked at the Hayden Planetarium as an astronomer for 33 years, took out his embroidered “eclipse flag,” a flag with a total eclipse design he or a proxy has taken to 34 total eclipses since 1973. He and a pair of merry first-time eclipse-watchers marched the flag up and down the aisle of the plane, much to the delight of the crowd.

three people hold up a blue flat with an image of a eclipse with a white flare in the inside of an airplane
Craig Small of the Hayden Planetarium celebrates the eclipse with an embroidered “eclipse flag.”
Bob King

The View from the Ground

The staff of Sky & Telescope not on the plane took full advantage of the partially eclipsed Sun rising over the Boston area.

S&T Editor in Chief Peter Tyson reports, “I was out on the Charles River in my single scull. By the time the Sun rose above the surrounding trees, the glowing crescent appeared vertical, like the right side of a parenthetical. A thin layer of cloud strips enhanced the view, making the orangey-white Sun vaguely resemble Jupiter with its bands and zones.”

“Back at the dock, I watched the last bit of Moon depart the Sun, leaving it perfectly round — and leaving me already excited for the next eclipse.”

Editors Diana Hannikainen, Alan MacRobert, and Monica Young witnessed the partially eclipsed Sun rise above a mist-covered meadow northwest of the city. As viewed through eclipse glasses, the chimney of a distant farmhouse split the crescent as it broke through the clouds before it rose fully into view. One of the youngest of the crew (6 years old) enthused, “That was so beautiful!”

Associate editor Sean Walker opted to see the eclipse from the shore of Lake Massabesic in Auburn, New Hampshire. “Low clouds on the horizon suggested I chose well,” Walker notes. “I would have missed the horns of the eclipsed Sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean had I driven all the way to the coast.”

horned sunrise
The horn of the partially eclipsed Sun breaks through low clouds over Auburn, New Hampshire.
Sean Walker

“A scattering of half a dozen people anxiously awaited the sunrise,” he says. “We were not disappointed when the first horn of the partially eclipsed Sun peeked over the densest clouds around 5:15 a.m. Several joggers stopped by my setup to have a look at the progress on the LCD screen of my DSLR camera and took cellphone shots of the screen as keepsakes.”

Partial solar eclipse above Auburn, New Hampshire
The crescent Sun rises higher into the sky.
Sean Walker

Share your experiences in the comments below, and be sure to submit any photos to Sky & Telescope‘s online gallery!





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