2021 ANNULAR SOLAR ECLIPSE FLIGHT RESULTS
by Paul D. Maley, NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society
Ring of Fire Expeditions’ Texas flag on the tarmac in Minneapolis following our successful eclipse flight. Lynn Palmer (left) and Paul Maley with Scott Radford in background. Photo by Richard Nugent. Our backup aircraft is actually pictured behind at gate C12.
Mid-annularity. 300mm fl Nikon lens and 1.4 x extender; Nikon D5600, f/20, ISO25,600, 1/500 sec. Paul Maley photo.
Our ROFE group displaying the traditional Texas eclipse flag. Our aircraft is partially seen at gate C13 on the right side of the image. Left to right: Chuck Herold, Chris Alexander, Leticia Ferrer (front), Eliot Herman (behind), Scott Radford, Lynn Palmer, Byron Braswell, Sharon Braswell, Jeff Pohlman, Richard Nugent, and Paul Maley. Not pictured: Katka Novakova and Bill Reyna. Our eclipse plane on the right; backup aircraft on the left. Photo by Bill Reyna.
Eclipse path in relation to Minneapolis. Courtesy X. Jubier.
This “ring of fire” eclipse occurred under very unusual conditions with the world still suffering from the pandemic. Some 94% of the Sun was set to be covered by the Moon for an estimated 4 minutes 25 seconds. Canada was our preferred destination with Baffin Island being our initial choice last year. However, the border was closed and there were no other reasonable options for us to get inside the path of annularity than to fly over Canada. [ RING OF FIRE EXPEDITIONS did not design this trip but instead a group of us signed on individually to the Sky and Telescope magazine/American Astronomical Society charter flight operated by Delta Airlines.] This was my 77th solar eclipse.
The projected path of our flight from Minneapolis MN into Ontario, then taking a left turn and moving northwestward. We could view the Sun for 28 minutes and saw 4 minutes 25 seconds of annularity. Graphic courtesy of Glenn Schneider.
Our aircraft was a 19 year old Airbus A319. It is similar to the one shown below. However, one thing we had to contend with was the rather smallish windows. Lynn and I had seats in row 2 and even in first class the windows were challenging to accommodate 2 persons photographing at the same time.
A Delta Airlines Airbus A319. Photo courtesy of Delta Airlines.
In order to prepare for viewing the eclipse as the Sun first would appear on the horizon we took a few images out of a United Airlines Boeing 737 thinking they would somewhat mimic the Airbus; but this was not to be. Even the best laid plans sometimes go astray. The image below gives an idea of a depressed horizon looking out the United flight from Denver to Minneapolis with a depression angle of about 3 degrees. At 35,000 ft we were above all cloud on that flight.
View from seat 1F on United flight 459 on June 9. Lynn Palmer photo.
Late on June 9 the entire group of about 35 persons met at the Intercontinental Hotel (Minneapolis Airport) for dinner. The following former/current/future Ring of Fire Expeditions members were to be on the flight: Eliot Herman, Scott Radford, Richard Nugent, Byron Braswell, Sharon Braswell, Katka Novakova, Chuck Herold, Paul Maley, Lynn Palmer, Leticia Ferrer, Chris Alexander, Bill Reyna and Jeff Pohlman. At 230am the next morning everyone was at the C13 gate where the mythical scheduled flight (Minneapolis-Duluth) was waiting. A backup Airbus was at the next gate ready in case the primary aircraft had a problem.
A lot of Delta employees gathered to help us get on the flight. Photo by Lynn Palmer.
Byron and Sharon Braswell waiting for the boarding process. With the exception of our group there was nobody else in the area at 230am! You will notice everyone had to wear masks in the airport and on the plane. Effects from the pandemic continued. Paul Maley photo.
There were a lot of selfies taken, especially by the various experienced eclipse goers. The one below was taken by Bruce Berger of himself and me.
Paul and Bruce Berger. Photo by Bruce Berger.
We took off shortly after 3am as planned and were able to get ahead of the planning schedule allowing maximum time in the eclipse track. Glenn Schneider had designed the aircraft flight path for a number of scenarios and we were able to operate with the best one. The graphic below show the actual as flown profile.
The planned light path from MSP (Minneapolis airport) northeast, followed by a couple of loops then injection into a northwest profile to watch the eclipse. The graph above consists of a green line and yellow line; yellow is speed and green is altitude. We had to get higher than the normal flight plan due to clouds created by thunderstorms (middle of image above). Courtesy of FlightAware and Aaron Brown.
I had hoped there would be other attractions including possible aurora sightings followed by noctilucent clouds, but that was not to be. We were in darkness for perhaps 20 minutes only. As sunrise approached you could look down and see nothing but solid clouds. It was great to be well above them.
Flying toward the eclipse path you can see thunderstorm clouds, 4 stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper and the brightening sky. Unless otherwise indicated all photos were taken by Paul Maley.
As sunrise approached the ground below looked to have solid cloud cover for the most part.
One of our more prepared observers was Eliot Herman (Tucson AZ) who had 2 camera backs, monopod, painters tape (a better substitute for duct tape) and a well designed annular solar eclipse shirt. He was in seat 1A. Each person was instructed not to lean our seats backward to any extent or it would interfere with observers in the row behind.
After the northwest turn was made, sunrise was approaching and a large anvil blocked our view. We had to travel to the left to finally break free from it.
How do you know when what you brought is too much? When you are sitting in a 3rd seat and your junk is piled up in two other seats.
Scott Radford and Richard Nugent during the eclipse. The Sun was so bright you can see light scattering inside the window.
Katka Novakova. Chris Alexander photo.
Chuck Herold (at the window) and myself. Photo by Chris Alexander.
Multi-field Electromagnetic Radiation detector. One of two set up by Chuck Herold to measure the EM field on both sides of the aircraft during the eclipse.
Chris Alexander at his photo setup–Canon 5d Mark iv and Williams Optics Grand Turismo 81mm aperture, f5.9 . Photo by Leticia Ferrer
Lynn hand holding her Nikon Coolpix P900 camera.
Byron Braswell with Nikon D850 DSLR & Nikor 200mm – 500mm f5.6 constant aperture lens with Thousand Oaks Optical 95mm screw-in filter. Photo by Sharon Braswell.
Jeff Pohlman. Photo by Sharon Braswell.
Richard Nugent’s central annulus image. Details: Olympus OMD E-M10-II, 300mm fl; f/19; ISO8000, 1/8 sec.
Even after 76 prior eclipses I still make mistakes. In this case I used the autofocus feature with my Nikon 300mm lens with 1.4 x extender. The above is the result. Not in focus as well as moving image being recorded. Then I switched to manual and things got much better. I had to abandon my suction cup device securing the camera to the window due to the narrow and tilted window. In addition the mount’s slider bar had an unexpected mechanical issue. Additional ‘photo fails’ are shown below to demonstrate what might happen regardless of how prepared the photographer might be.
At second contact, Baily’s Beads were not apparent. These two images by Paul Maley; Nikon D5600, f/20, 1/400sec, ISO25,600.
A Thousand Oaks Optical ND5 filter as third contact approaches. The plexiglass window made getting a really sharp focus difficult.
Three images from Byron Braswell that provide a representation of the stages of the eclipse: crescent, contact and annulus. Nikon D850, f/5.6/ 1/500 sec, ISO640, ND5 filter.
Other images that were rejected by the photographers occurred for a variety of reasons: camera being hand held, camera not perpendicular to the window, the Sun not being perpendicular to the window, camera shooting through the aircraft windows which caused distortions, camera on ‘automatic’ causing a longer exposure than expected. This is one reason why shooting an eclipse from an aircraft may not be productive. I can comment that when I tested my exposures on land, my camera worked perfectly using the ‘auto exposure’ setting. When I started taking exposures on the aircraft, this setting would not work so I was forced to switch to ‘manual’.
Bad image example showing a double ring. This is one of many examples by almost every photographer on the flight. Contributed by Byron Braswell.
The above photo is NOT a Krispy Kreme donut. It is the annulus around the Sun resulting from unintended overexposure. Sometimes life mimics art. The results are interesting but not as expected. The Sun, however, is perfectly centered. Cool photo contributed by Chris Alexander.
Photo by Lynn Palmer f/5.6, 1/13 sec, ISO 1600 Nikon Coolpix P900. It shows the date/time but expressed in MST (origin is inside the camera) rather than the local time of 4:51 CDT. You can see signs of overexposure (common on most of the aircraft eclipse photos) but also Baily’s Beads at the very top at the one o’clock position.
Baily’s Beads are tricky to capture at second/third contacts for annular eclipses. They are made even more difficult by the aircraft windows which tend to distort the clarity. That is why photographing them from the ground can be so much better. For annular eclipses the contact points are extremely brief and unless you have very rapid multiple exposures with the correct exposure characteristics it is easy to miss them. If you go to our 2019 annular eclipse expedition web page ( https://eclipsetours.com/2019-results-of-the-india-annular-solar-eclipse/ ) you can see the challenge even on stabilized tripods. The Beads are indicative of sunlight streaming through lunar valleys and for annular eclipses can be quite small at the tangent points. The best place to observe them for either total or annular eclipses is at either edge of the eclipse path where their presence is prolonged considerably.
In this photo you can see an example of what happens to some hand-held photos when there is slight movement that cannot be controlled as well as the automatic composition by the camera sensor of the exposure and f/stop. It would have been helpful to have the camera tripod-mounted or mounted in some way but given the window configuration this was not possible. It is an example of how to prepare for any future solar eclipse photos where a filter is required and mounting would help to mitigate any of these effects.
Eclipse image sequence by Eliot Herman.
Eliot Hermans’ eclipse photo setup.
Plans by both myself and Eliot to photograph the eclipse using suction cup window mounts were thwarted by the small window size. Eliot describes his set up as this. “I used a monopod taped to the seat with painters tape with a ball head, not a monopod head. A ball head has 3d movement, a monopod head only 2D. The camera is a Nikon D850 capable of shooting >250 images during max eclipse with high speed XQD cards at full frame raw. The lens is a Nikon light weight 300 mm pf lens and 1.4 X teleconverter for 410 mm with no front skylight filter (reflections !) and a Baader film solar filter that has a neutral white color. I shot ISO 800 9 x 0.7 stops centered on 1/2500 sec which is fast enough to freeze plane motion. The camera was prefocused at home and focus fixed with painters tape. I used VR.
This gave me the distance from the window needed, enough native focal length to be useful, and it minimizes playing with the camera in flight. My sole job is then pointing and pressing the trigger (cable release). I used live view to keep the sun roughly centered.”
Iqaluit, Canada photos through cloud. Courtesy Nunatsiaq News.
Eliot pointed me to the 2 images above taken from the ground at Iqaluit in Canada. This was our planned destination before the pandemic shut things down. Photos were taken not using a ND5 filter. While I was a bit suspicious about the origin of the first photo the annulus appears to be thinner than those photos shown before that from our flight. That might be due to the overall solar brightness of the Sun even with an ND5 filter as opposed to the natural sunlight filtering that appeared to be responsible for the Iqaluit images. The second image more closely resembles what we captured from the air but has less cloud than the first leading to a possible overexposure compared to the thicker cloud seen in the first image.
Lynn with champagne celebrating her birthday AND her 38th solar eclipse on the same day.
Chris and Leticia at the after party after a successful eclipse experience. Photo by a flight crew member.
Left to right: Chuck Herold, Jeff Pohlman, Byron Braswell. Photo by Sharon Braswell.
Eliot Herman’s annularity image. Courtesy ABC News.
Weatherman Rob Marciano describing the eclipse flight live for Good Morning America. Part of our group on left side of this image. Courtesy ABC News.
Lynn and others on TV. Courtesy ABC News.
Katka Novakova on TV. Courtesy ABC News
Lynn being interviewed by Rob Marciano.
Our two Delta pilots being interviewed. Notice their eclipse ties sold by a company called Zazzle online for US$25.
The final status of our 3.5 hours flight originating from and return to MSP airport. Photo courtesy of Bill Reyna.
Text version of our flight plan. Courtesy Dr. Glenn Schneider.
Cloud map at eclipse time (CDT in Minneapolis) over the region with the eclipse center more or less superimposed. You can see thinner cloud to the right of Hudson’s Bay but fundamentally cloudy all along the path. The red line is the rough centerline of annularity. Our observation point was approximately the line drawn in blue. The imagery unfortunately cuts off before reaching Greenland.
Our eclipse flight was successful. We saw the entire sequence from sunrise to past the end of annularity. The aircraft was manually controlled for the first part of the flight which led to some bumps making photography a little challenging but once on the track, the autopilot was turned on and it was stable. I had been on one total solar eclipse flight in 2003 over Antarctica. At the time it was the only way to observe this eclipse. If there is any land or sea alternative other than a flight, I would recommend it. Seeing an eclipse through aircraft windows is not the same thing as seeing it in the open air. The experience is not as genuine. One is limited by the ability of the flight crew to fly a stable clean path, the window size(s), condition of the window surfaces, limited ability to see only a small portion of the sky, and the overall logistics to get to/from the takeoff location. You cannot get the sense of temperature changes, wind, suspense of being clouded over or not, seeing horizon effects or darkening of the sky. However, this eclipse was completely constrained by the political circumstances of the pandemic where travel regulations kept changing and borders were arbitrarily closed.