Eclipse 2017: What does it mean for Aviation?

The view from the 2013 solar eclipse flight over Kenya. (Photo: Catalin Beldea)
A total solar eclipse viewed from TSE 2015 eclipse observation flight “EFLIGHT 2015 MAX” at 37,000 feet above the Arctic Ocean. Due to the fact that the path of totality only found landfall on two North American islands, Steward Observatory and the Department of Astronomy led by Dr. Glenn Schneider chartered an Air Berlin Airbus A330-200 to view this incredible phenomenon. (Photo: Dan McGlaun)

You likely have heard the news by now. On August 21st, all of North America will be able to see and experience one of nature’s most incredible sights – a total solar eclipse. Occurring only once every few years, a total solar eclipse is rare. Furthermore, a total solar eclipse occuring in North America is even more uncommon (The next North American total solar eclipse will occur in 2024). During a total solar eclipse, for a brief amount of time (usually only a minute or two) the sun is obscured by the moon. As a result, a shadow is cast upon the Earth. If in a direct path, also known as the path of totality, people on Earth will experience a brief period of darkness. Those outside the path of totality will still see the sun being eclipsed, however there will still be a part of the sun that isn’t obscured, thus making it very dangerous to view without proper eyewear. People around the country have been making plans for this rare celestial event, and some hotels within the path of totality were fully booked out over a year ago.

The path of the August 21st eclipse shown on a map. The path of totality will cross the entire United States for the first time in many years. (Photo: NASA)

So, what does this mean for aviation? USA Today recently conducted an interview with John Cox, a retired US Airways captain who experienced a solar eclipse while in command of a flight in the mid-1980s. Cox ultimately stated that, in terms of safety, there are virtually no concerns when flying during an eclipse, explaining how the only difference is that during an eclipse the visibility is decreased, just like flying at night. The only difference is that you don’t need your night landing currency to legally fly during an eclipse.

Southwest Airlines is currently promoting its five scheduled flights that are expected to cross the path of totality of the August 21st eclipse, promising passengers special viewing glasses and cocktails. Alaska Airlines is also planning an invitation-only flight that will intercept the eclipse off of the coast of Oregon before it makes landfall in the United States.

The captain of any aircraft, whether it be an Airbus A380 or a Cessna 172, always makes the final decision of the route of flight and how the aircraft itself is being flown. On the other hand, air traffic control is responsible for keeping adequate separation between aircrafts on instrument flight plans. However, pilots can request an amendment to their flight plan to better view a solar eclipse. The same applies for scheduled departure times as well. Depending on the eclipse, the airline in this case has the ability to change the scheduled departure time to ensure that the flight plan will intercept the path of totality at exactly the right moment.

That was the case with Alaska Airlines flight 870. During the total solar eclipse on March 8th of 2016, an Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage to Honolulu was expected to intersect the path of totality. However there was one problem – the flight’s scheduled departure time would have been 25 minutes too early, thus missing the rare phenomenon. Joe Rao, an astronomer booked on the flight, worked with Dr. Glenn Schneider at Steward Observatory to create an alternate flight plan. Rao then called the airline and explained the situation and proposed the new plan. As a result, Alaska decided to push the time of departure forward by 25 minutes to accommodate for the eclipse. They even cleaned the windows on the right side of the plane for the occasion.

“It’s an unbelievably accommodating gesture,” said Mike Kentrianakis, a solar eclipse project manager for the American Astronomical Society. “Not only is Alaska Airlines getting people from Point A to Point B, but they’re willing to give them an exciting flight experience.”

The flight ended up intercepting the eclipse flying 500 mph at 35,000 feet 695 miles north of Honolulu. Passengers onboard the flight witnessed the eclipse for a total of 1 minute 53 seconds.

The path of the Alaska Airlines flight intercepting the path of totality. (Photo: Alaska Airlines)

On a completely different note, solar eclipses do in fact greatly affect general aviation operations. In Oregon for example, GA airports are already reporting that they are completely booked up for the celestial event. The same situation is affecting thousands of other GA airports within the path of totality across the entire country. In this case with Salem Airport, the local GA airport in Oregon, airport staff have been receiving requests from pilots as far south as California that want to fly in to witness the eclipse. Pilots are planning on camping out with their planes at airports like Salem all throughout the country. One flying club in San Fransisco reported that more than half of their 50 airplanes are already scheduled to be in Oregon or Idaho for the eclipse.

Over in Nebraska Diana Smith, manager of the Beatrice Municipal Airport, reported to the Nebraska Radio Network that she expects that this will most likely be the greatest amount of traffic at once that the airport has ever seen before. She stated that the airport plans to close its diagonal runway in order to make room for the overflow of aircraft that will be parked on the field during the eclipse.

Heidi Williams, NBAA’s director of air traffic services and infrastructure, stated that “some business aircraft flights may be affected by the total solar eclipse that will occur on August 21st”. The NBAA is advising pilots to monitor written notifications, or NOTAMs, for possible flight restrictions or other unusual events that could affect flights around August 21st. Williams also reported that Atlantic Aviation at Casper-Natrona airport in Wyoming is down to a handful of parking slots for August 21st, and is expected to completely run out before that day.

The total solar eclipse occurring on August 21st is expected to be one of the most incredible celestial events to witness with your own eyes. Whether it be from a plane or on Earth, everyone in the United States should take a moment to look up and appreciate this rare occurrence and incredible phenomenon.