Here’s What It Was Like to Chase the Solar Eclipse in an Airplane

Aug 21, 2017

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Monday’s solar eclipse crossed a broad swath of the United States, touching 14 states. Hundreds of thousands of people took days off from work, pulled their kids out of school, and made their way into the shadow of the moon. The onslaught of eclipse tourists resulted in enormous crowds and traffic jams along the “path of totality” that cut across the US, but there was a way to soar above it all — by being on an airplane.

Southwest Airlines promoted a handful of flights from which to view the eclipse, and TPG sent me on one, to see what it would be like.

In July, Southwest announced five flights that would afford passengers a view of the eclipse, provided they had a window seat on the correct side of the plane at the right time of day. Three of those flights departed from Denver, (DEN) where I happen to live. I chose flight WN1969 to Atlanta (ATL) because it had the longest flight time, thinking it might give me a better opportunity to view the eclipse.

Because Southwest has an open seating policy, I chose the Business Select fare for my flight. It’s the most expensive option, but it guarantees an early boarding spot. When I checked into my flight on Sunday afternoon via Southwest’s app, it said I had boarding position A10, meaning I would be the 10th person to board the plane.

Shooting stars hung from the cabin ceiling throughout the cabin. Photo by Paul Thompson.
Shooting stars hung from the cabin ceiling throughout the cabin.

On Monday morning, I arrived at DEN, armed with only my backpack, which contained my Nikon DSLR, GoPro Hero 4 Black (and extra batteries) and my MacBook Pro. I lined up at boarding time and made my way onto the Boeing 737-800. The party began the moment we boarded. A speaker in the gallery area was playing aviation-themed music such as Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and of course, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Shooting stars were hung from the ceiling throughout the cabin.

Southwest Flight Attendant Tami Wensenk (left) made sure she worked this flight, after reading my story about flying during the eclipse. Photo by Paul Thompson.
Southwest Flight Attendant Tami Wensenk (left) made sure she worked this flight, after reading my story about flying during the eclipse.

I chose a seat on the right side of the cabin (if you’re boarding, facing the tail) because I estimated my side of the plane would have the greatest chance of seeing the eclipse shadow, based on direction of travel and time of day. Each seat had a pair of Southwest-branded solar eclipse viewing glasses.

Shades

Each row also had a card mentioning the special flight and the cosmic drink specials of the day. Southwest renamed a few cocktails for the occasion. The Bloody Mary became the Red Sky, while the mimosa (champagne & OJ) became a Stargazer, and the screwdriver (vodka & OJ) was renamed the Sun Flare. Myself and the two other passengers in my row each ordered Sun Flares when it came time for drinks.

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I took out my GoPro and stuck it to the window with its suction cup mount. The passenger in the aisle seat was impressed that I came prepared. It was fun to see the rest of the passengers’ reactions to the decorations and hand-outs as they boarded. Our flight attendants were really into it! During their normal boarding announcements, they referred to our departure as “rocketing,” and when passing out our snacks, (honey-roasted peanuts, and BelVita golden oat breakfast biscuits) they offered “space cookies and inter-galactic snacks.”

Mid-flight, the flight attendants asked some eclipse-related trivia, such as how often solar eclipses happen. Did you know that Dayton, Ohio won’t see a total eclipse until after the year 3000? But hey, they had the Wright Brothers.

The view from my flight was never as good as the one in the video above, but we did legitimately fly during the eclipse. It just wasn’t through the path of totality. A few times during the flight, the pilots banked the plane left and right, so passengers on both sides could get a view of the sun. The sun was really too high to really see, and it wasn’t until I climbed down on the floor in front of my seat that I was able to get a peek at the sun, which was nearly covered at that point, about thirty minutes before landing.

Southwest Rapid Rewards member Sean Stevens gazes at Monday's solar eclipse after landing in Atlanta.
Southwest Rapid Rewards member Sean Stevens gazes at Monday’s solar eclipse after landing in Atlanta.

I got a better view after we landed, when I went to the window at the end of the C concourse in Atlanta. There, I met Southwest Rapid Rewards member and Companion Pass holder Sean Stevens. Sean booked his solar joyride with his points, and flew into Denver from Tulsa specifically for the flight on Monday morning. Stevens was one of roughly 40 who held up their hands when the flight attendants asked who was flying just to see the eclipse.

Southwest Flight Attendant Tami Wensenk (pictured above) told me that she traded her schedule in order to work this eclipse flight, after having seen the story I had written about flying during the eclipse for TPG earlier this month.

Overall, it was a really cool experience. Although it was a little disappointing that we didn’t fly into the direct shadow of the moon, I knew that was a possibility beforehand, so I didn’t go into this with my hopes too high. The Southwest flight attendants did an excellent job of making sure it was a fun time, and they never charged us for our drinks. I also tip my hat to the pilots who had to get special permission from the FAA to make those turns for us to have a chance at seeing the eclipse.

All photos by the author.

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