The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Watch this video of the first round-trip flight to the Aurora Australis

These 134 passengers boarded a Boeing 767 on March 23 for an eight-hour flight with the sole purpose of getting an up-close look at the Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Aurora Australis is tough to catch — much more difficult than its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, simply because there’s not much (inhabited) land around the South Pole. It takes an extreme geomagnetic storm to push the Southern Lights to Australia or New Zealand.

But one way you’re guaranteed to cross off the Aurora Australis from your bucket list is to catch a flight with the only purpose of buzzing the Antarctic Circle — clouds zooming by beneath and green auroral lights dancing overhead.

The flight took off from and returned to New Zealand, and crossed the date line four times. There is always a band in the night sky that is experiencing an aurora, called the “Aurora oval,” and that was the charter plane’s destination.

Ian Griffin, an astronomer and the director at the Otago Museum in New Zealand, is the mastermind behind the flight. He said he was inspired after seeing the Southern Lights while flying as a guest on a NASA observatory plane, the Associated Press reported.

“I thought it was absolutely brilliant,” Griffin told the AP. “We were right under it. There were beautiful streamers, auroral streamers. This green-colored stuff that moves quickly, it looks like you’re looking into a green, streaky river.”

The rest of the passengers on the flight, who each reportedly spent anywhere from 4,000 to 8,500 New Zealand dollars for their seats, were just as excited as Griffin, the AP writes:

Passenger Nick Wong said he’d stumbled upon the idea of the flight last year through social media and decided to sign up.
“I didn’t think we would actually see such a spectacular display, even by the naked eye,” he said. “It was really great to be a part of an adventure with like-minded people who were equally or more excited at viewing this phenomena as I was.”
Wong, a cancer research scientist, said he loves going camping and looking at the stars, something he found more stunning in New Zealand after moving from Australia three years ago.
Wong said he didn’t have any spare leave and was back at work giving a presentation on Friday after a night without sleep. He said viewing the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, remained on his bucket list.

Griffin is hoping Thursday’s event was the inaugural flight. Ideally for him, this would be a regular trip — something that seems likely after the rave reviews from the passengers.