How a Photographer Got This Stunning Total Eclipse Image From a Southwest Plane

Aug 21, 2018

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On Monday Aug. 21, 2017, parts of the US experienced a total solar eclipse. Dubbed “Great American Eclipse,” the solar eclipse passed completely across the United States — the first eclipse to sweep coast to coast since 1918.

Professional photographer Jon Carmichael was determined to experience and capture the eclipse himself. As an amateur pilot, a self-described “space nerd” and a lover of aviation, he could think of no better way to experience the eclipse than from an aircraft. When he heard about the promotion to win a free seat on-board an Alaska charter flight flying into the eclipse, he felt it was perfect fit for him. So, he went all out, even hiring an animator to help produce his video entry for the contest.

Unfortunately, his efforts didn’t pay off. A few days before the eclipse, he found out that he hadn’t won. However, feeling his “life came together for this moment,” Jon was determined not to give up on his chance to see the eclipse from an aircraft. Comparing flight schedules with the eclipse forecast, he found and booked Southwest Flight 1268 from Portland (PDX) to St. Louis (STL) hoping it would work out.

He showed up at the gate with a B boarding position — and $600 cash ready to “bribe” someone for their window seat. (He could’ve jumped the boarding line for a lot cheaper by buying EarlyBird Check In.) At the gate, he spoke with a Southwest agent, mentioning his intentions to photograph the eclipse and sharing some of his work. The Southwest crew sprung into action from there.

Determined to help Jon get the shot, they made sure he’d be the first to board the Southwest flight. Jon chose Seat 1A. After introducing himself, the captain personally stepped onto the jetway to clean the outside of Jon’s window to ensure he had the best shot.

Once in the air, the pilots didn’t just fly into the eclipse, but worked with air traffic control to loop five 180-degree turns to ensure both that Jon got the shot — and that everyone on both sides of the flight got a view of the historic event.

Jon didn’t just get one shot but thousands. And, as Jon seemingly only half-joked, it’s taken him a full year to blend the photos together to get the stunning final image:

Great American Eclipse over the Oregon and Idaho border at 39,000 feet on Southwest Airlines flight. All rights reserved. Do not copy or sell print without permission from image creator Jon Carmichael.
Great American Eclipse over the Oregon and Idaho border at 39,000 feet on Southwest Airlines flight. (Image by Jon Carmichael Photography, all rights reserved.)

Reflecting back on the experience and the final masterpiece, Jon waxed poetic:

The last time we had a connection to the heavens like this was during man’s first flight to the moon, on Apollo 8 in 1968. The first, famous Earthrise photo came from that mission, and like the eclipse last year, showed us that we are all a part of something bigger. I wanted my photo to perfectly capture this moment.

And he certainly accomplished that goal — at least according to Carter Emmart, the Director of Astrovisualization of the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the American Museum of Natural History. Calling the image “by far one of the best eclipse photos I have ever seen,” Carter says the image shows our “linkage to space” providing “greater landscape detail than we get from Earth’s orbit. His image is a ladder to space.”

On Tuesday morning at Twitter’s New York office, Jon unveiled an almost 10-foot-wide print of the image in the print’s first public appearance. Thankfully you don’t have to travel there to see it; we are grateful for Jon sharing the image — and his fascinating story — with us here.

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