Eclipse-viewing party in the air: Alaska Air flight to get an early look

PORTLAND, Ore. -- While millions of people get ready to watch today’s total solar eclipse from the ground, Alaska Airlines will be hosting an eclipse-viewing party in the air.

Alaska’s charter Flight #9671 will leave Oregon’s Portland International Airport at 7:15 a.m. PT. It will head west for two hours out over the Pacific Ocean to give astronomy enthusiasts, eclipse-chasers, a NASA astronaut, social media contest winners and other guests flying in a freshly-washed Boeing 737-900 a unique and early view of the total eclipse. The plane is expected to fly at 38,000, possibly climbing to 40,000 during the viewing flight.

Over the past few months, astronomers have been working closely with Alaska Airlines pilots to chart the best flight path to catch the eclipse and found that, for a variety of reason, heading out over the ocean would provide the ideal views.

“The first reason relates to the high altitude of the sun,” the airline explained in a fact sheet. “In order to allow observers to see the Sun both from the window and adjacent middle seat, we need to fly from Portland International Airport to a pre-selected position approximately 815 nautical miles to the west-northwest over the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.”

MORE: Getting ready for the special eclipse flight

Another reason for traveling away from the mainland is to avoid potential “aerial gridlock” or congestion in the skies over the Oregon eclipse zone as the time of totality nears and private jets take to the sky.

A third reason is that passengers will be able to see things from 38,000 feet that aren’t visible from the ground, “like the moon’s shadow racing across the ocean towards the sun as we near totality,” said Joe Rao, an instructor and lecturer at American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. 

Alaska Airlines' 737 Fleet Capt. Brian Holm and Capt. Hal Anderson worked with astronomer Glenn Schneider and others for months to ensure passengers on this flight get one of the first views of the total solar eclipse – at 10 a.m. local time (1 p.m. ET). 

The airline’s measurements, combined with calculations performed by software developed by Schneider, were used to pinpoint where and when the airplane will intercept with the great American eclipse. 

“As the eclipse travels across the country it will be pretty high in the sky,” said Holm. “And by traveling to the west we’ll be intercepting it earlier in the morning to get a better view. We’re shooting for an optimized viewing experience with the sun directly off the wing tip so passengers will have a perfect view of totality for what we estimate will be 1 minute 43 seconds.”

Holm volunteered that there’s no need to worry the plane will tip when everyone rushes over to view the eclipse on the right side of the plane. 

While exacting plans for the flight have been in place for some time, the airline has left room for a bit of flexibility. 

“We have a long list of contingency tables and plans we can use if we need to make any changes due to weather, traffic, or time issues,” said Holm. “Because the last thing we want to do is disappoint anyone on this important day.” 

For Monday's eclipse flight, Alaska Airlines has secured eclipse glasses for all passengers and pilots and put together a special in-flight entertainment program that includes space-themed TV shows and movies including: “Hubble’s Cosmic Journey”, “Avatar”, “Hidden Figures,” “The Martian” and “Star Wars: A New Hope.”  

This isn’t the first time an Alaska Airlines plane has chased an eclipse. At the request of eclipse-chasers, Alaska Airlines adjusted the route of a flight in March 2016 to optimize viewing of a total solar eclipse over the Pacific Ocean.

TODAY IN THE SKY (archives): Alaska Air adjusts flight plan so fliers can see eclipse (2016)