Eclipse Riders in the Sky
12 Aug 1999We promised to bring you the exciting adventure of ESA's astronomer Leo Metcalfe, who planned to chase the eclipse by plane. Well, he made it.. And here's the story and his personal account!
"That was great. We are just toasting our success with champagne - not orange juice in any case. OK, cheers!". At 11:10 on the morning of 11 August, Irish astronomer Leo Metcalfe was happy, "greatly relieved", as he would say, after two adrenaline-high hours. He had just admired the millennium's last eclipse from a privileged position: flying at 29 000 feet over the Atlantic, 290 kilometres off the southwest coast of Ireland. Great images had been taken by the ESA cameraman Remy van Haarlem - you are watching his video shots on these pages - and the two camera operators from University College Dublin.
Metcalfe hired an exclusive jet, a Hawker Siddely 125, to chase the Eclipse and try to stretch the duration of totality from 2 to 2.5 minutes. Five other passengers - Prof. Brian McBreen (University College of Dublin), a science reporter and the cameramen - flew with him, as well as two pilots and a flight attendant from the airline Westair Ireland. Take off was due at 10:00 from Shannon airport, in the west coast of Ireland. Only 15 minutes before that time, the flight strategy was still being refined: It originally included a fast 180-degree turn of the plane to join the lunar shadow as it raced over the Earth. But Metcalfe and the cameraman were concerned about the risk of losing the track of the eclipse after such a complex manoeuvre.
Here is Leo Metcalfe's personal account of the adventure, and a transcription of part of the tape he recorded while flying.
"We were in the centre of the shadow and you could see the great dark circle over our heads" -- Diary of an adventure.
For me, the diary really began middle of last week. At that time this "expedition" began to evolve rapidly towards a more complex operation that originally planned - Originally, the idea was to have a nice vacation flight to see the eclipse, and to see the shadow coming in.
Last Thursday morning, things seemed to be falling apart, but everything developed quickly however after that. Over the space of 24 hours or so the "team" gradually built up to its final composition, and the strategy for the flight firmed-up between myself and Westair (pilot Captain Peter Cahill). We moved the take-off airport from Dublin to Shannon, and concerns about air-traffic clearance and feasibility within the affordable time constraints were cleared up. We were cleared to fly to 29 000 feet (8800 m) on the eclipse track. I was still worried that clouds could well extend above 29 000 feet - and the medium range weather forecast suggested it might.
It was a nerve wracking weekend - but by mid-Monday I began to believe that the overall logistics, at least, might work after all. There was a significant amount of newspaper and radio interest - and the Irish Sun newspaper put a small picture of me on page three beside the pin-up - I made it to page three of the Sun.
If this were a diary - at this point it would record the loss, last evening, when we were already in Shannon, of the ring I have worn since I got my doctorate which, if I believed in something as unscientific as ill-omen, would have seemed like one! I lost sleep that night searching under beds to no avail.
I was surprised at how soon after takeoff we saw breaks in the clouds. I hadn't worried too much about the precise timing of the start of the partial phase. It was well on the way when we cleared the lower cloud layer.
At this point things were moving fairly sedately, and I had time to play with a pinhole camera ! Basic physics works. I found it very practical to keep the log on audio tape.
The time to reach the eclipse track seemed to pass very fast. As we moved into the dry-run about 30 minutes before totality the pace of events started to pick up. The camera alignments were validated for the aircraft heading in use. We turned back onto a heading towards the shadow. It was now about 15 minutes before the onset of totality and there was some anxiety that we should be conservative and sacrifice the attempt to see the shadow approach in order to ensure good camera alignment well before totality. At the same time I agreed with Captain Cahill that we should modify the flight strategy to move South of the centre line about 15 or 20 miles, and then fly a shallow diagonal across the centre line from South to North at about 15 degrees to the centre line in order to get a better viewing angle on the Sun.
Through all this we continued to fly towards the distantly advancing shadow. The sky was getting dull and the sunlight was getting very noticeably pale - so that I kept looking up to see if the Sun was behind some high cloud! The visible crescent of the Sun was getting narrower and narrower and the guys on the cameras began to ask which side we would in fact film on. The pilots held course to take a better position near the centre-line of the track. The time crept towards 11:00 and our nominal interception time. And the tension was VERY high.
At this point, though I asked the pilots if we could come around to the secure heading (away from the shadow) I hated to do that. Fortunately, they judged the need to hold course for a time longer - and I am very glad to say that we held course until the shadow-core was seen. At that point Captain Cahill - seeing the shadow approach - turned hard and we felt some "Gs" in the back. It was hard to move and lift an arm as we came around close to the shadow track.
In the path of totality
Now the pace of events was very high. Totality was minutes away - and it is always very hard to judge how close at this point. I no longer knew our exact position, so I was relying on visual estimates to decide when the diamond ring would appear. I warned everyone to standby for totality and the pace of events seemed enormous. Checking to see if the cameras were aligned, checking the Sun. Squeezing into the corner of the window. At this point I dropped my reflective-glasses behind the seat and had to fish in my briefcase for a spare pair. Seconds to go - frantic to get back to the window. And then the last piece of Sun started to fade out and I think I called second contact.
The glasses could be dispensed with now and for the second time in my life I got to see the solar corona emerge slowly from the solar glare, and stars appear in the sky in the middle of the day.
What was the difference from an observation on the ground? I have described before the experience of the onset of totality from the surface. In flight, within the aircraft, the sensation of great scale - the perception of the sudden darkening of the world and the movement of the moon in the sky was less. The dominant feeling was this time the sense of everyone working frantically to use the couple of minutes of totality available to us, and the effort to see as much as possible through the limited perspective of an aircraft window. Much of the time I had been very concerned that nobody on-board should miss any major part of the view.
In these few minutes of totality I saw clearly only the corona and the events of the eclipse. Everything else was like a dream in the background, in slow motion.
I looked around the horizon to both sides of the aircraft and pointed to Dolores Barnwell, the flight attendant, the bright horizon all around us - we were in the centre of the shadow and you could see the great dark circle over our heads. These moments are like a movie in fast forward. You try to see so much that in the end only instants are seen clearly and remembered.
But these were the great impressions of seeing the eclipse from the compact, private but hectic environment of an airplane under pressure to complete measurements. Speed, speed of events, excitement, intense experience, the sense of others' excitement.
A rare moment, in a nameless place, in an alien scene - just seeing - a moment truly lived. That's what adventure means.
After that - well, it's hard to come down. I found it hard to project enthusiasm, not because I didn't feel it, but because I had too many impressions to process. From myself and from the people around me. And I'm still rerunning that movie in my head, trying to see everything.
Feet back on the ground again
Afterwards, back on the ground, I was absorbed in the problem of how to best use our results quickly. We did much more than I had originally set out to do, but we were still an essentially private expedition and working with very limited resources. I think we got some beautiful images though.
My most unique mental-image from this eclipse is of looking forward over the pilots' shoulders towards the Western horizon when the shadow was only minutes away. The sky was grey and any moment the darkness on the horizon would deepen and this enormous wall would bear down upon us at thousands of kilometres an hour. In the end, I didn't see it myself, I was looking at the Sun!! But I'm very glad that others, and the pilots up front, did. And I think this won't be the last eclipse I meet above the clouds.
As always, for accomplishments of this sort, one pauses to admire one other thing. That is the way people who hardly know each other, come together into a team. When everyone knows their job and does it, it is in itself something to watch.
I want to thank all participants - Prof. Brian McBreen from University College, Dublin, for making major contributions to the organisation and logistics, the European Space Agency for funding the participation of their camera operator Remy van Haarlem, the UCD Audio Visual Department (Brian Kelly and Eoin McDonagh), for video coverage. Dr. Tony Scott of UCD Publicity Office supporting their participation. El Pais, for support to journalist Monica Salomone. And last but by no means least, the staff of Westair Aviation, of Shannon, Ireland, not least our pilots Peter Cahill and Fergus, for making it all come together on the day.
Audio bites transcript