Flying to the darkness
Way (way) back in February 1979, I was a senior in an Oregon high school, as well as the president of the school’s astronomy club. It was the year of a total solar eclipse and through the school we arranged an overnight trip to Goldendale Washington to see it from the zone of totality. The weather barely cooperated, and through the cloudy skies we saw an occasional glimpse of the sun as the moon moved in front of it, and when the big show arrived we got maybe twenty seconds of totality before the clouds covered it all up for good. Despite the poor weather, it was an amazing experience, and I definitely wanted more.
Fast forward to 2017. If you've read my blog before, you know that I work as an airline pilot. I also belong to a flying club in Renton Washington, where I’m one of the club’s instructors. It has been 38 years since that chilly, cloudy solar eclipse in Goldendale, but my interest in astronomy hasn’t waned. I desperately wanted to get to the zone of totality for this year’s eclipse, but despite months of searching, about the best I could manage was an invitation from a friend in Sisters, Oregon who said we could camp in his yard. Sisters was only going to get about 20 seconds of totality, and I was hoping for more. Then one day this May, I was sitting in the food court at the Maui airport after finishing a trip, waiting for my commute flight home to Seattle. A daily email newsletter from AOPA said that the Madras Oregon Airport had opened reservations for airplane parking/camping, and it was almost directly on the centerline of the eclipse. Within one minute of reading this I’d checked the schedule for our planes the weekend of the eclipse, found the Cessna 182 was available, reserved it, and called the airport to make my arrival reservation.
The timing of the eclipse was working out well for me. I’d bid for vacation for most of August, mainly because my 16-year-old son had an eleven-day canoe trip with his boy scout troop planned into the Canadian wilderness, and I wanted to be a part of it with him. That trip dovetailed nicely with the eclipse which was going to take place about a week after we got back. It was going to be a busy, but memorable month.
The flight from Renton to Madras on August 20th with my son was beautiful, with perfect weather. There was a reason so many of us were heading for Madras: That portion of eastern Oregon had among the best statistical chances for good weather along the entire coast-to-coast eclipse track. Our route went pretty much down the crest of the Cascade mountains, past sleeping volcanos like Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens. We had to make a small diversion around a fire-fighting TFR north of Madras, but with the help of a DUATS TFR map, it was easy. Because of the expected influx of nearly 500 planes there was a temporary tower at Madras, and we had already received a slot time for our arrival. Our arrival was scheduled at 11:42am, and it worked out well for us as I only had to slow a little as I approached the airport to make our time. We slid right into the pattern, but on downwind we heard a Citation call the tower saying they were on short final for 16, while a Cessna 210 had been cleared to land on 34. The Centurion did a go-around as the Citation touched down. At first we thought the Citation was at fault, but we later talked to the 210 pilot, and apparently Seattle Center was late turning the Citation over to the temporary tower, and the jet didn’t know about the direction the tower had been using for the rest of the traffic. We extended our downwind until the tower was ready for us, touched down in front of the growing crowd, and were directed to our parking spot on the grass, 200 feet from the runway. The rest of the day was pretty quiet with a slow but steady stream of arrivals. The airport seemed to have prepared well for the onslaught of visitors – there were plenty of porta-potties, and they had several food & beverage vendors near one of the main hangars. My son and I set up our tent, sat back, and enjoyed the views of arriving aircraft, skydivers off the north end of the airport, and even a flight of five WWII fighters roaring over the airport with a precision break into the downwind just as the sun set behind Mt. Jefferson, due west of the airport. I’ve never been to Oshkosh, but this felt a little bit like what I thought it might be like to attend that show.
Eclipse day started with a 5:09am wakeup call… from a Gulfstream V business jet. We’d camped next to our 182 just 200 feet from the runway, and apparently someone very rich (rumors were, it was a famous internet billionaire) came roaring by with full reverse thrust at that early hour, just in time to wake the whole airport. Hearing (and feeling) that roar from inside a tent is something I’ll remember for a long time. More jets soon followed, so we got up and prepped our cameras & telescopes. Just after 9am the first edge of the moon moved in front of the sun, and for the next hour it slowly got dimmer as more of the sun was covered. Unlike my experience in high school, the weather was mostly cooperative. Some forest fires in the nearby mountains had put a slight pall of smoke in the air and I feared it might block some of the detail from the eclipse. But as the sun moved higher the smoke thinned out, and my photos of the sun through the telescope went from having a red cast to being a clear yellowish white. The last few minutes before totality had the most dramatic change as the visible sun became just a tiny sliver of light, and the temperature dropped markedly in the clear and dry desert air. Suddenly, there it was – a black hole in a deep purple sky, with a white mist around the edge of the hole. The sight of the sun in total eclipse was jaw-dropping, incredible, inspiring and amazing. Many of the people around us on the flightline cheered and hooted, and I heard a lot of cameras clicking away. I’d readied my plan well ahead of time; I took off my eclipse glasses, removed the solar filter from the telescope, and snapped a lot of photos while still looking at the eclipse. I didn’t want to spend the precious two minutes of totality staring at my camera. My son also had his camera out and took several photos of the eclipse, as well as the darkness around us on the ground. We even managed to get a ‘selfie’ with the totality. Looking around, there was an orange sunset-like glow in all directions, and stars in the sky next to the black hole of the eclipsed sun. All too quickly it was over, and almost like someone had flipped a switch, it got brighter as the first peek of the sun appeared from behind the moon. Totality was gone way too quickly, yet it had left indelible images, forever impressed into my memory.
The hardest part of the trip was leaving, as pretty much all 500 aircraft wanted to go at once. After packing up our plane, we pushed it back onto the grass space behind us, and waited for the lineup to move. We went through a couple of startup/move/shutdown sequences, and eventually made it onto a paved taxiway. After that, my son and I just pulled the plane with the towbar another half-mile or so - in ten-to-twenty-foot increments - as several streams of parked aircraft merged onto the one taxiway leading to the runway. It was hot, sweaty work as the re-emergent sun had warmed things into the low 90s. Once we were about 10 planes from the runway we put the towbar away, climbed in, and put on our headsets. That whole process from the first pushback to being #1 to go took about three and a half hours. Everyone else around us had done the same thing too, pushing their planes to save on gas. But finally it was our turn, and we just had to start up, take off, avoid the TFR and head home. Looking down at the miles & miles of crawling road traffic attempting to leave Madras made me really happy I was flying.
Having access to the plane made the trip easy and effective. It just reminded me again of how useful a GA airplane can be. It’s quite different from the A330 I fly for work, but there are things I can do with our flying club planes that would be impossible to do with the airlines, like flying from our local airport to another GA field to watch an astronomical spectacle. I was able to bring my son along on this adventure, something he was as thrilled to do as I was. If you haven’t seen a total eclipse before, make an effort to get into the path of the moon’s shadow the next time one happens. Mere words just can’t convey the feeling of awe you get staring into the black hole of totality. And yes, I’m planning on going down to the southeast US for the eclipse in 2024.