How to See the Northern Lights From a Plane

Jan 13, 2019

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It’s one thing to say you’re going to see the Northern Lights, but watching the shimmering auroras from an airplane? That’s a little harder to pull off, logistically. But if you think about it, soaring tens of thousands of feet above the ground takes one of the toughest meteorological obstacles out of the equation: cloud coverage. And flying also eliminates interference from light pollution, which certainly helps.

If seeing the Northern Lights from an airplane is at the top of your travel bucket list, you’re in luck. We spoke with Icelandair Captain Sigríður Einarsdóttir, who has more than 34 years of experience flying the Arctic skies, to learn more about what to expect from an aerial aurora borealis show. From when to book your flight for the best chance at spotting them to how they’re different than when seen on the ground, you’ll want to read this before you hop on a flight over the Arctic Circle this winter.

The Best Routes to Book

The Northern Lights are most commonly spotted in the northernmost points of the world: Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. If you’re flying near any of these destinations, there’s a chance that you’ll catch the aurora borealis in action during your flight. But location is just one of the many factors to keep in mind.

When to Fly

Aside from the destination, you also need the right weather conditions for the Northern Lights to show up. Make sure you’re passing over a Northern Lights hot spot at night. You can’t spot them during the day.

Of course, you wouldn't be able to see the Aurora Borealis during the day. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Of course, you wouldn’t be able to see the Aurora Borealis during the day. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Winter and fall are the best seasons to travel to see the Northern Lights, as the days in the northern hemisphere are shorter and darker. “I would recommend coming toward the end of November; it is close enough to the winter solstice (shortest day of the year) to provide the ultimate blanket of darkness,” Einarsdóttir told TPG.

On top of that, it also needs to be a clear night. This is where the airplane comes in handy, because most of the time, you’re traveling high above the clouds, giving you the opportunity to see a lights show that sometimes can’t be seen from the ground.

“What better way to minimize the cloud cover than getting above them and being surrounded by the Northern Lights? I have witnessed the lights on multiple occasions [in flight]. Most recently, I was fortunate enough to experience the lights three times in the space of four days,” she said.

The Northern Lights are completely unpredictable, but you can get a better idea of what to expect from local aurora forecasts. Einarsdóttir specifically recommends the Icelandic Met Office, if you happen to be flying to, from or near Iceland.

Which Seat to Choose

This one may seem obvious, but if you’re seated in the aisle, there’s no way you’re going to see the Northern Lights without invading your seatmate’s space. Grab a window seat, and you’ll be setting yourself up for a front-row view of the Northern Lights, should they make an appearance.

And if you want a shot with the airplane’s wing in the frame, keep that in mind when booking a seat, too.

Do the Northern Lights Look Different From the Air?

“Seeing the Northern Lights while in the sky is a unique experience because the lights are brighter and you can see a bit more of the subtle movements of the lights,” Einarsdóttir said. “The Northern Lights are amazing from any vantage point, but the sky is definitely something special.”

How to Photograph the Northern Lights from a Plane

If you’re lucky enough to see an especially vibrant Northern Lights show, you can capture it from your iPhone. For the best shots, however, you’re going to need a DSLR or another high-performance camera.

TPG editor-at-large Zach Honig, captured an amazing shot of the Northern Lights on a Singapore Airlines flight while flying over British Columbia. He used a Sony RX100 M3 for the shot. But whether you’re using a smartphone or a true camera, stability is going to be key for capturing the auroras in a photo.

Joby tripods are great because they fit into small spaces and easily attach to backpacks or carry-ons. In short, you can set it up on your tray table.

And the last thing you want is a reflection of your snoozing seatmate in the window of your frame. Use a blanket, sweater or jacket to block out light and potential reflections from around your camera. Think of it as a hood for over your head and camera. It might look silly, but the photos will be well worth it.

A successful shot of the Northern Lights, taken from behind an airplane window. (Photo via Shutterstock_
A successful shot of the Northern Lights, taken from behind an airplane window. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Another thing to note: all of the colors that make up the Northern Lights are hard to see with a human eye. Your camera will be catching more detail than you are. So, if you’re using a camera, be sure to set it to a long exposure; this will help you capture as many colors as possible.

You won’t get the freedom of setting your frame exactly how you want it like you can from the ground, but you also won’t have to stand outside in the freezing cold to enjoy the show.

Featured image via Shutterstock.

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