For eclipse lovers hungry for more than just a couple minutes of totality, taking to the air could prolong the experience – by a minute or so.
On the morning of Aug. 21, air travelers taking off from Portland, Ore., could be among the first to extend their viewing if their timing and routes hit just right. Cities to the east could do the same as the day rolls on.
A Reddit user on Tuesday pointed to Delta flight 2466, which is scheduled to take off from Portland at 8:45 a.m. headed to Atlanta along the path of the eclipse. Southwest is touting its flight 1368, leaving Portland for St. Louis at 9:05 a.m., plus departures from Denver later in the morning.
The moon’s shadow will be moving faster than your 737, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you can gaze at the total eclipse all the way across the country. (Back in 1973, researchers flying on a supersonic Concorde across Africa were able to keep up – and had a view of totality that lasted 74 minutes.) On everyday jets this time around, the bonus by being in the air would be about a minute, or a bit more, of total eclipse viewing.
Depending on your level of commitment – or disposable income – it could be worth it.
“When you’re watching a total eclipse, every second counts,” said Amir Caspi, a senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and principle investigator on a NASA-funded mission to chase the eclipse with a couple of Cold War WB-57F bombers.
NASA’s planes will be flying a route over Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee, roughly from St. Louis to Nashville. “The eclipse on the ground in those places is going to be about 2 minutes, 40 seconds,” Caspi said. “We will get almost 4 minutes.”
That’s crucial for their work trying to understand the sun’s corona – its outer atmosphere – which will come into brilliant view. Stitching together film using both planes, they’ll end up with about seven and a half minutes of footage of the total eclipse – a thrilling opportunity to ferret out the mysteries of the heavens.
“The main scientific question is: Why is the corona so hot, millions of degrees rather than thousands of degrees – because the visible surface of the sun is only thousands of degrees,” Caspi said. “We’re looking for waves and ripples in the corona. The longer we can observe, the more likely it is we can detect those wave and ripples.”
For non-scientists eager for a view from above, there are upsides and downsides, Caspi said.
As for pluses, flying prevents the buzz-kill potential faced by every terrestrial eclipse peeper: clouds.
“A lot of people are unfortunately going to get clouded out,” Caspi said.
But cramped planes are also imperfect venues.
“You have to look at it through these small windows that aren’t necessarily always the best viewing portals. They’re not built for quality photographs,” Caspi said. “That may be a little bit disappointing.”
Caspi himself will be on the ground. There are only a couple seats in the old bombers, only enough space for the pilot and a highly-trained specialist.
“It’s one of the sacrifices we have to make for science,” he said. “I’m very confident we’re going to get the data we need with their expertise.”