In anticipation of tomorrow’s total solar eclipse — and to meet the requests of diehard eclipse chasers — Alaska Airlines Flight 870 will alter its usual departure time to maximise the view of this rare and spectacular celestial event.
Most of the world won’t be able to see tomorrow’s eclipse, since it will mostly be visible from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This total solar eclipse — the only one to happen in 2016 — will be visible to observers in parts of Indonesia (including Borneo, Sumatra, and Sulawesi) and from a few other locations in the Pacific (including Hawaii).
Those who happen to be on Alaska Airlines Flight 870 from Anchorage to Honolulu tomorrow are in for a special treat. At the request of astronomers — many of whom will be on the flight — the crew will be making sure that passengers get to see the eclipse in all its glory.
The plane will depart on March 8 at 2:00 PM local time, which is 25 minutes earlier than usual. (The eclipse, at just two minutes in duration, would otherwise be missed.) A special flight plan is currently being prepared to find the most efficient route and to account for weather and wind. Captain Hal Andersen has also contacted Oceanic Air Traffic Control to inform them that the flight will likely require some tactical changes.
“The key to success here is meeting some very tight time constraints — specific latitudes and longitudes over the ocean,” noted Andersen in an Alaska Airlines statement. “With the flight management computer, it’s a pretty easy challenge, but it’s something we need to pay very close attention to. We don’t want to be too far ahead or too far behind schedule.”
Image: Alaska Airlines
Planning for this moment began shortly after the last total eclipse on March 20, 2015. American Museum of Natural History Astronomer and veteran eclipse chaser Jose Rao discovered that Flight 870 should intersect the path of totality — the darkest part of the shadow’s moon as it passes over Earth. Rao called the airlines and asked if they’d make a few accommodations for the flight so that he and his fellow eclipse enthusiasts — along with regular passengers — could watch the spectacle. To his delight, Alaska Airlines said yes.
Above: The total solar eclipse of March 20, 2015 as seen from a plane flying along the umbral path.
“It’s an unbelievably accommodating gesture,” noted Mike Kentrianakis, solar eclipse project manager for the American Astronomical Society, who will also be on the flight. “Not only is Alaska Airlines getting people from Point A to Point B, but they’re willing to give them an exciting flight experience.”
Other astronomers and “umbraphiles” — a term derived from umbra, the dark shadow cone of the moon that moves across the Earth’s surface during an eclipse — who will be onboard include Craig Small, a semi-retired astronomer from the Hayden Planetarium, and Dan McGlauen, who will be handing out 200 pairs of special filtered glasses to passengers. Amateur astronomer Bob Stephens plans to film the eclipse with his GoPro and a pair of handheld cameras. Undoubtedly, cool footage will be sure to follow.
You can follow the flight tomorrow at FlightAware.com.