I could see the news wasn't good for my hometown of Duluth. As we approached the north shore of Lake Superior, the airplane window framed dark thunderheads popping with lightning. I was one of 29 eclipse chasers and crew on board a Delta Airbus flight crew speeding northeast toward the hallowed path of annularity. Within this track observers would see the sun encircle the moon in a "ring of fire" shortly after sunrise during the highly anticipated annular eclipse.
As the sky brightened, the passengers ambled one by one to the windows on the plane's starboard side to get ready or the big astronomical event. Some, like me, toted cameras with long telephoto lenses, while others opted for mobile phones. A few carried only a handheld solar filter, unbothered by the need to record. Somewhere along the wild, northeastern shore of Lake Superior, the pilots would pivot the plane and tack to the northwest, bisecting the broad path of annularity.
For a little more than 4 minutes the silhouetted moon would lodge inside the brilliant solar disk before sliding away, not to return until the Dec. 4 total eclipse over Antarctica and the south Atlantic. Closer to home, the next eclipse visible in the Americas, another annular, occurs on Oct. 14, 2023.
When the plane finally made its fateful turn, we all studied the horizon to anticipate where the sun would rise. Far below, a fluffy carpet of clouds hid the landscape of lakes and forest. We could have been anywhere. Then a problem arose. Distant, high clouds threatened to temporarily block the sun and shave minutes off the eclipse, so the pilots took the plane up another 1,000 feet to its limit of 39,000 feet (11.9 km), to "lift" the sun into better view. They also graciously tilted the starboard wing about 5 degrees so we all could have a better view of the scene.
I'll never forget that first sight of star. The blinding brightness of it. The dramatic shape. Only a shark-fin's worth of sun poked from the clouds, but it quickly grew into a fat but rapidly diminishing crescent. When the moon finally centered itself on the sun, leaving only a wedding band's worth of sunlight, Rob Marciano, a meteorologist with ABC News, remarked about how bright the sky still looked. Nothing like a total eclipse. Marciano sat in the row behind me keeping a close eye on the moon's progress.
"I was surprised at how bright it was at annularity," he said later. After some discussion, Marciano pointed out that it made sense since we were above three-quarters of the atmosphere. Without the haze, humidity and frankly, hot air, there's not much there to sop up sunlight That's both good and bad if you're a photographer. I had hoped to capture photos with clouds to get a sense of the scene, but that was nearly impossible. Moments after sunup, a solar filter for the camera was necessary. Safe filters darken EVERYTHING except the sun.
From the stable ground it's fairly straightforward getting photos of the eclipsed sun. Planes are trickier. Photographing the sun requires careful consideration especially when using long telephoto lenses. The plane is vibrating more than you think, and second, you're shooting through windows made of multiple layers of acrylic plastic. But in a very considerate gesture, the airline specially cleaned them for our flight.
We viewed the eclipse for about 20-25 minutes. Then the pilots swung the jet around and buzzed back to Minneapolis. Because the flight was a closed loop without a ground destination, no one got frequent flyer miles. I'm serious. Think about it. We started in Minneapolis and ended in Minneapolis. On paper it looks like we went nowhere.
Eclipse high points for me included the joy of the adventure itself and, of course, that big sun-tooth. Later, while viewing the eclipse through a solar filter, the moon actually looked closer than the sun, hovering in the foreground. I know it was my imagination, but the view was convincingly three-dimensional. Anthony Black, a spokesperson for Delta Airlines, fully appreciated the extra altitude, saying that "it almost felt like we were in outer space."
One of the best parts of our excellent adventure was hearing the stories and sharing the passion of the participants. These folks take eclipses seriously. For many, they got their first taste as children and simply had to have more. Astronomer Jay Pasachoff of Williamstown, Maryland, has witnessed 35 total eclipses and saw his 19th annular on Thursday. Every time he goes to one he puts on a special pair of solar-orange eclipse pants. Flying, while more expensive, is often preferred because you can pretty much escape the clouds.
Sarah Azizi, 35, of Philadelphia, coincidentally celebrated her birthday on Thursday. On her first eclipse flight ever, she wore a tiara and sequined mask. As we trundled down the stairs to the tarmac for a group photo, I asked what she thought of the eclipse.
"I was moved to tears," she said. It felt like a cosmic communion."
Maybe that's why we keep chasing the moon's shadow.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.