The total solar eclipse on Monday, August 21 is shaping up to be an Earth-shaking event, if the crowds getting into position five days early are any indication. But while carloads of chasers are queuing up to see the totality, some are skipping that step and meeting the eclipse more or less half way—from the air.
That’s right: There are flights that will follow the path of the totality, and extreme eclipse chasers are willing to throw down the cash to buy a commercial ticket or even charter an eclipse flight. The benefits of an aerial view are twofold: You’re above the clouds, taking weather out of the equation, and the speed of your aircraft can prolong totality—the phase of the eclipse when the moon completely blocks the sun—from about two minutes all the way to three. NASA is capitalizing on that to do scientific research into the sun’s corona, but enthusiasts just want a great view. Though definitive numbers are hard to come by, multiple commercial airlines and dozens of private aircraft are making flights. One pilot is so dedicated to the mission that he’s been planning it for six months—striking up a collaboration involving supersonic fighter jets from the US Navy.
The easiest way to score front-row seats has been to book flights on commercial airlines. Alaska Airlines is flying a dedicated charter flight for astronomy enthusiasts. An undisclosed number of passengers aboard one of its aircraft will observe the phenomenon from 35,000 feet off the coast of Oregon, making them among the first to see the shadow. This flight is invitation-only, but it was inspired by a flight in 2016, when a pair of eclipse chasers convinced the airline to modify a commercial flight to Hawaii to enable passengers to see another eclipse over the Pacific Ocean. The success of that effort prompted the current one, said an Alaska spokesperson.
Southwest Airlines is providing regular passengers the chance to see the eclipse. It has several flights departing from Denver, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, all heading to points east, meaning they’ll fly along sections of the path of totality. “We crunched the data and found flights most likely to intersect the umbra, assuming normal operational and weather factors,” said Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins, noting that the airplanes need to be flying along the path of the shadow, rather than simply through it in any random direction, in order to have worthwhile exposure to event. “We’re going to have fun with this.”
Other airborne flights include helicopter trips—Fly Jackson Hole in Wyoming is auctioning off seats on a helicopter that will cruise above the mountains—and well-heeled private-jet owners taking to the skies in their Cessnas, Embraers, and Gulfstreams. Those nimble craft often fly at altitudes even higher than commercial traffic, at up to 45,000 feet. Victor, an on-demand jet charter outfit, is offering eclipse-chasing flights for $9,000 in a six-person jet, with the route customized to your location. Private-jet charter XOJET alone has multiple flights booked for this mission, but most of private pilots and jet owners keep a low profile when it comes to flying their business jets.
Private pilot Brian Schaeffer, from Chicago, says that as buzz has built up in the last few weeks, more and more business jet owners have decided to bring friends up for the view, too. “We’re seeing a lot of interest, and it could make the path very crowded on Monday,” says Schaeffer, who plans to fly nine passengers on his Bombardier Challenger 350 from Missouri to South Carolina. “The problem is that the FAA doesn’t require aircraft to announce their intentions of their flight, so it may not be until Monday when we find out if there’s going to be any problems up there.”
The FAA doesn’t track the purposes of private flights, either. But a spokesperson there indicated that they are seeing increased general-aviation traffic in both Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, on eclipse day—though that could also mean parties coming in to land and observe from the ground.
Of all the airborne eclipse junkies on Monday, the one with the best view will likely be Mike Killian, an Orlando-based aviation photographer. He’s collaborating with the US Navy on a flight of two supersonic E/A-18 Growlers that will depart from Washington state and chase the eclipse above the Pacific. “We’ll intercept it over the ocean, fly a few photo maneuvers with the second aircraft, and then race it a supersonic speeds for 30 seconds or so,” says Killian. The Navy sees it as an opportunity to hone their precision flying skills and execute some well-timed marketing, while Killian is fulfilling a lifelong ambition.
“I’ve waited my whole life to see a total solar eclipse,” Killian says. “I dreamed of flying when I was a kid, and of seeing a total solar eclipse. Combining these two now is a dream come true.” To make it happen, he had to secure the approval of the Navy. “It’s not a simple yes or no,” he says. “There’s a chain of command, and it’s never guaranteed. But as an aerospace photojournalist this idea was a no brainer, honestly. Go big or go home.”
Killian will be flying with the Navy’s Electronic Attack Squadron 130, based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. He’s planning his shot-list carefully, as flying in a military cockpit presents as many challenges as perks—from restrictions on the number and type of cameras he can bring and assorted reflections from the expansive bubble canopy. He’ll be shooting with a wide-angle lens to capture the shadow below—while briefly inverted—and views of totality itself. He’ll hang a black curtain inside the cockpit to minimize reflections and a rubber lens hood that will allow him to get close to the glass.
Killian began planning the flight six months ago. On Monday, his efforts and those of the pilots and crews working with him could pay off with spectacular results—and at the very least, an unbelievable view.